Noose: Road Kill MC (#1) by Marata Eros

I grab Crystal's hair, fisting it tightly against the scalp, and drive into her hard from behind.

She squeals, and I suck up the noise like a starving man.

Sweet butts are all the same. They want to be taken.
Noose: Road Kill MC (#1)
Noose: Road Kill MC (#1) by Marata Eros
I want to take. I love bareback, but rubbers are key. This pussy has had more dicks than I can count, and it's like fucking another man if you're not wearing a raincoat. Even when it's not raining. I'm done being introspective. I don't have to be anymore. I just fuck. I wear a rubber so I can fuck and not think. Perfection. Like the knots I make. Like the ones I've made to murder with. Crystal moans. I thrust harder and start swirling my dick high in a semi-circle. She screams, her cunt squeezing my dick in big deep pulses. My balls get ready for lift-off, and I come from my toenails, emptying the double barrel right on target. My head tips back, and I give an exhausted exhale. When I finally come down, I slap her tight ass and withdraw, stripping the spent rubber from the top and rolling it off as I walk. Chucking the limp sheath in the trash can, I turn around. She's still there, tits still mounded on the tabletop I pushed her on, pussy all bright pink and plump. Splayed for the next guy. If any were dumb enough to enter my lair. I smirk. They sure as fuck shouldn't be. An exhale drives out of me, and I tear calloused fingers through my hair, wanting a smoke bad. I glance again at Crystal's slit. It's a shame when a perfectly good pussy isn't leaking cum. I shake my head in partial regret. Can't have it all. Her head pops off the table, and she moves to the side, her natural large rack sort of rolling toward the tabletop. Crystal puts her head in her palm, studying me. I admire the view as I hop into my jeans. Commando. I'll figure out underwear when she's outta here and I can grab a shower. For now, I just want to get my ass covered and have my post-coital drag. I rummage through shit on the top of my battered chest of drawers and spy the hard box of cigs underneath a pair of clean underwear. Snapping open the lid, I give the pack a wrist flick, and three cigarettes slide out. I open my lips and nip one out. After flipping the lid closed, I toss the pack back on the dresser. I grab the lighter out of my jeans pocket and light up. Cupping my hand around the flame, I take the first drag then shoot a smoke ring toward the peeling paint of the graying ceiling. Relief washes over me. I got off, time for a kick back, then I go back to work. I'm already hashing shit out for the day in my head when Crystal starts talking. I’d forgotten she was there. Her lips purse. Some girls think pouting is cute. I know it's the cue for a potential mega-rant in my near future. Not having that noise. She runs her hand through her bleached-blond hair, puffing it out on the side that was mashed against the tabletop. My lips quirk. Her effort to be sexy is sort of fun, like free entertainment. “Hey, baby, let me stay for a while,” she says in a voice that tries too hard for bedroom smooth, finger trailing over her tit and tweaking the nipple. Nice. I clamp the cig between my lips and shake my head. “Nope. Out.” My thumb slings toward the bedroom door. The big pout ensues, full bottom-lip treatment. “But”—she sits up, tits jiggling, and starts to walk fast after me—“I thought we could—” “Nope,” I repeat, flicking ash toward the ashtray as I stride toward the bathroom. Most of the inch-long ash lands in the glass bottom that reads Road Kill MC. How's that shit for propaganda? The Prez believes in the club like the Holy Grail. I do too. It's all there is for us one percenters. It's the road. The bike. And the women. Not always in that order. I don't need anything more than that. I never have. I turn around fast, and Crystal bounces into my chest. My hand rests against the doorjamb leading into the bathroom. “Listen, you're cute.” I give her chin a little chuck. “But I'm not looking for anything long-term.” I lift my shoulder, blowing another lazy oval toward the ceiling. Crystal looks ready to cry. God damn. I stuff my cig in the ashtray, mashing it in half. Spirals of smoke curl upward. Grabbing my wallet off the nightstand beside the door, I jerk out two twenties and a ten. I shove them at Crystal. “Go buy yourself something hot. Something that shows tits and ass.” Chicks like to shop. What do they call it? Oh yeah—retail therapy. She grabs the money, looks down at it for a second, then throws it in my face. “I'm not a whore!” I wince. The green bills floats to the worn carpet. Act like a whore, look like a whore… “You're a sweet butt. And you were sweet.” Not so much now. “But it's time for you to take off.” Her face reddens. “You're a jerk, Noose.” I've been called worse. I step into the bathroom. I don't look at the sweet butt picking up the crumpled cash. I kick the door closed behind me then give a hard turn to the faucet. When the entire bathroom is steaming, I get inside the shower. She'll be gone when I get out. They always are. * I should have done my sets before I showered. But no way was I going to have Crystal around while I work my shit out. Tonight I'll do pushups, twisted sisters, and burpies until the cows come home. There's always the punching bag. Nobody's ever using it when I come in. My fists will tire me out. Fucking insomnia. The witching hour is officially mine. I own it. I owned it over in Afghanistan too. Can't sleep when you know someone might kill you. Or you might have to be the one doing the killing. I move through the club with a lot of stealth, considering my size. It's part of why I was never a jumper in the military. Big guys get fucked up fast. Six feet, four and two hundred twenty pounds of male has all kinds of potential for getting broken to bits. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall” has new meaning in a parachute. That's why hands-on assassinations are so much more appealing. Knots. When I'm stressed out, my mind does them. My hands are restless to feel ropes under my fingertips—the abrasive kind or the slick new style that knots faster than my mind can think it. I pass the kitchen, a hangman's knot wrapping my thoughts. The loop's perfectly symmetrical, winding and wrapping until there's a little loop, then I pull through— “Noose!” A rough hand claps my back, and I frown. ’Bout had that knot. My favorite. Hence the namesake, I guess. My team would know why, even though the club guys don't. They're probably under the impression it's a tough name or that it’s cool. It's not. Noose has meaning. But to those of us who fought side by side, we don't talk about obvious shit. Our time just was. I give a broad smile. Lots of us brothers have similar names. Take Snare, the guy who’s just put his hand on me. He gets out of those—traps, close calls, the works. The dude's got nine lives. Nothing like a cat, though. He lifts his fist, and I bump my knuckles with his. “Hey, man.” “Saw Crystal go outta here in a huff.” His eyes, a blue so pale that they're the color of frozen water, hold humor. Snare's about three inches shorter than I am, but he’s built like a brick shithouse. I shrug at his words. “How was she?” His eyes are hooded. He’s probably thinking about the platter of pussy we have strutting around all the time. He hasn't sampled the Crystal hors d'oeuvre yet. I lift my shoulder. “Same as the rest.” His eyebrows jerk in surprise. Snare's got some Native American in him. His hair's jet black. White folk never get hair that dark without help. The mix of light-blue eyes and black hair is striking—or so the ladies seem to think. My hair is shit dishwater. Can't make up its mind between brown and blond. That doesn't matter; I keep the sides short and the top long. When it gets in my way, the whole load gets tied down. Since I'm on the back of the bike half my waking hours, hair's tied down a fuckton. I even have a little invisible hair tie for the beard. I keep that long and square. It's darker than the hair on my head, with a touch of ginger. Had a sweet butt ask me last month if I was Scottish. Fuck if I know. I guess I'm American, for what that's worth. I'm a mad bastard, I told her. Then I went to town on her twat. That shut up the questions in a hurry. Just a lot of moaning and shit after. That's how I like it—don't ask me for history. “Come on, Noose, she's always pining for you. I haven't had a crack at her.” I chuckle. “Nice choice of words, bro.” He flings his muscular arms wide. “Not just another pretty face.” Snare winks. His face is not pretty. Snare got some blade time and a close call that almost took out his eyeball. The twisted scar tissue bisects one eyebrow, narrowly misses his eye, and travels in a hooked line that ends at the cleft of his chin. Some girls are shy about Snare. I think scars add character, though. It makes him look bad ass, which, in turn, freaks out the chicks. Love/hate thing. Not bad for the sack. I exhale. “Crystal doesn't pine. She whines.” “Now who's the poet and they don't know it?” Snare asks, glacial eyes widening. I flip him the bird. “Ass.” He nods. “Yup. But put in a good word for me anyways.” I give a lopsided grin. “I don't think Crystal's gonna think any of my words are good after our interlude.” Snare whistles, walking outside with me. Brilliant sunlight belts me in the face, and I flick my sunglasses open. They’re high-end and polarized. I don't like glare when I ride. I slide them on my face, loving the anticipation of the wide-open ribbon of black asphalt. “Interlude?” he asks in disbelief. I throw up a hand and waffle it around. “Pelvic grind, hip bump, pipe lay…” Snare grunts. “You ever done anyone twice, Noose?” I narrow my gaze at him behind my dark glasses. “Nah.” “Figured.” Our attention turns to our rides. The windshields glint in the sun like sleepy, winking eyes. “Let's ride,” I say. Snare doesn't need another invitation. 2 Rose It's my break. I'm allowed to look at my text messages. I have to. Charlie will send me pictures. He always does. The sweetheart. I move through the breakroom, my hip hitting the countertop of the little kitchenette. I grimace but hardly notice. A ping sounds, and an image fills my cell screen. It's a Lego tower. A perfect, brilliant work of art. For a five-year-old. I smile like I just saw an original Picasso. Love swells my chest, and pride tightens it. He's done so well. “Hey, Rose,” one of the other tellers greets me as she walks by. “Hey, Naomi,” I reply absently, brushing away a stray hair that's come loose from my topknot. My eyes are all for the new little creation my boy made during his first week of kindergarten. My heart flutters. I cried ten gallons of tears last week when I had to send him off. My sadness had been evil. I guess all mothers feel that way. I don't know for sure. I'm not really a mom. I'm an aunt. But his real mom's dead. So I'll have to do. I bite my lip, rolling the plump flesh inside my mouth and gnawing at it. My finger runs over the colorful blocks with a loving touch, my screen magnifies, and I see his left hand clutched over the top. A tower almost as tall as he is threatens to topple, but not before the teacher got the pic. I text back rapidly. “Beautiful.” There's no return text. I glance at the time on my cell. Naptime. My heartbeat regains its slow rhythm. I try to overcome the panic at not immediately hearing back from him. I'm sort of a gloom-and-doom type. I haven't seen Charlie's father in a year. The fucking loser. Time feels pregnant with potential, swollen with his promise of getting his son back. Over my dead body. “Rose.” I know that voice and sigh. I lift my chin, meeting his gaze. My boss stands there, his eyes steady on the clock over my left shoulder. One minute past break. Ned's about ten years older than I am. That puts him around thirty-four. He's married. Not that the little fact of his status as taken stops him from making passes at me whenever he can. Ned found out fast that I don't date. Ever. I sure as hell don't date married men who are my boss. Some of the girls don't care that he’s married. They rise in the ranks faster for blowing him in his office. I've been a teller at this bank since high school graduation. My first boss died of a heart attack last year. Orville was a good man. Now Ned's here. He smirks, obviously enjoying the discovery of my minor transgression. I slide off the stool, realizing I missed having a snack. Not great for the old hypoglycemia. Stupid, Rose. Oh well, maybe I can pop an M&M or two at my station. He leans down next to my face as I pass him, his hot breath singeing my temple. “Don't let it happen again.” Sacrificing my body’s natural aversion to a man, I try not to jerk away. I feel an expression of disgust seat itself on my face as I regard him. His beady brown eyes slim on me with a hate that I don't deserve. Just because I say no doesn't mean I suck. But to Ned, my lack of interest means exactly that. I turn away quickly, trying to pretend those interchanges don't bug me or make me nervous. That’s crap, of course. Anxious sweat stings my palms and breaks out underneath my armpits. I hate feeling stressed where I work. My fingers curl around the cell. I have Charlie. I have a job. I have a hell of a lot to be thankful for. Crying over my perv boss like a scared little bitch won't solve it. I just won't be late anymore. Even a minute. A second. I don't want to give the jerk anything to have over me. I scoot my stool with the rolling wheels underneath the counter and lift my sign that says Next Window. I'm ready to take money now. * I hate my boobs. Other women think I've got it made or something. I fill out clothes nice, sure. But I have to wear two sports bras so the girls don't drive me crazy with bouncing. Besides, it kind of hurts if I don't. Like now. I jog around nine-minute miles most days. On the weekends, I go a little nuts and do around six-mile runs, then I'm a true jogger, slowing down too just under tens. During the week, between my job and Charlie, I can only manage around three times a week. I take Sundays off. That's Charlie's day. My day. I swear I live at Scenic Park. Rumor has it we had a mayor back in the 1970s who was out of control for parks and threw one in everywhere there was land. Kent needs it. The city's a little armpit bedroom community to Seattle now. Infrastructure was not well thought out, and the traffic is a rat's nest of too many cars in clogged arteries. The roads of Kent have cholesterol, and there's not a damn thing we can do to stop the impending heart attack. The valley bisects the east and west hills of the city. Kent's got long fingers of ownership that travel all the way to Federal Way to the west, cutting a path through that town and still claiming a narrow swath that belongs to the City of Kent. I don't care about the impractical parks that could have been made into more roads or wider ones. I just like to jog the paths of Scenic Park and have a free, safe place to hang with my nephew. The ritual of running erases my mind's problems and takes me on a journey of the soul without introspection. I cannot think for that hour I'm pounding paths that wind through trees. I don't think about my creeper boss. I don't think about Charlie's real dad, my sister’s murderer. I just run. Charlie loves the park. If the wind's strong, we fly kites that get caught in the Douglas fir trees, tails like rainbow arcs toss their color in the deep blue of summer that comes late in the Pacific Northwest. A wave of light-headedness washes over me, making my stride stutter. Dammit. My little waist pouch taps my hip softly as I run. I hate stopping the rhythm I set when I run. My sports watch says I was doing high eights. That's pretty fast for my slow ass. A tight smile stretches my lips. Just one more quarter mile, and my car will be in sight. I can make it. I take the last bit of my run hard, seeing what I've got left. When my little Smartcar comes into sight I slow to a walk, cruising right past the shiny white toaster. I'm begging to puke if I just stop and hop in. Nope. First, it's the ten-minute cool-down walk, then it's stretching. First things first. I spring a Jolly Rancher candy free of my little pouch, tear off the wrapper, and stuff it inside my mouth, striding back and forth. I probably look like a crazy pacer. I suck hard through my nose and breathe out my mouth, controlling my air. Sweet and sour apple flavor explodes inside my mouth as I suck on the candy, willing it to settle me and ground my fuzzy brain. Being tied to protein and ready sugars gets old, but it could be worse. Oh well. My tongue rolls the candy around in my mouth, my heartbeats slow, and my shakiness subsides. I plant my hands at my hips, elbows out, and walk with my head down. Back and forth, back and forth. I don't see, hear, or think. I crunch my candy and cool down. That's probably why I didn't notice him at first. Drake moves into my path. I stop as if I just walked into an invisible wall. It sure feels like I did. The wings of my elbows fold, and that heartbeat I had under control riots inside a chest that suddenly doesn't feel like taking in air. “Hello, Rose.” He's just as I remember him from last year. Huge. Greasy. Sinister. Dangerous. I don't reply, pivoting quickly. I move to my car. He's so fast, his hand is on the handle before I touch it. I make a little noise of distress. God, please. Please. His smile is cruel as he grits out, “We're gonna talk, bitch.” My heart flies up my throat. I try to reply but can't. His hand grips my bicep, fingers biting the tender flesh just above the elbow. “There's witnesses, Drake.” I'm so proud of the evenness of my voice. He nods. “I know that. We're gonna talk. Here. Now.” I swallow, craning my neck to get a good look at him. He's over six feet to my five feet, seven. His biker gang tats are all over him. The only tat-free space on his big body is his face. He reeks like body odor and ashtrays. Underneath that is pure evil. I shudder. His smile widens. He's so pleased by the effect he has on me, and I'm helpless to not react. Drake is the most repugnant man I've ever met in the flesh. He drops my arm as though it burns him. I know that's not the case. He's told me I look as good as my sister. When he said that, tears burst from my eyeballs. Not a few. A flood. He laughed. The leather of his motorcycle jacket creaks when he shifts his weight. “Hearing's coming up.” I know that. I've lived knowing that. My feet take me a few steps out of his reach. “I know.” “They're going to give me my boy back.” A slow, false grin spreads on his face. I shake my head, my lips thinning. “They'll take one look at you and give me another five years.” “You fucking bitch. Give me visitation rights.” I swallow my fear, as his hands become flesh hammers at his side. “What rights?” I whisper in a choked voice, my fingers splaying over my heart. “What rights did Anna have?” “She stepped out on me,” Drake says, crossing his arms over his steroid-muscled chest. “She walked out on you. Big difference. But if that helps you sleep at night…” His eyes slim down on me. “I sleep like a baby.” He puts a V around his lips and his tongue punches out. Wagging at me. Disgust ripples through me. “What are you? Twelve?” I shake my head, turning to walk back to my car. Defeated. I have to see this maniac again in a week. I should have known he couldn't wait until then. He reaches out, snagging my wrist. He grinds the small bones together. “You will say you're willing to give me visitation, or I'll make it so you wished you had.” A whimper slips out. Drake likes the noise. His hold tightens slightly, then he drops my arm. I fight not to rub my wrist. I feel tears burn my eyes, knowing what my sister went through before she died. A taste of Drake's abuse is enough to last me a lifetime. “You can't force me. Charlie's all I have of Anna. He's a human being, not a pawn for your control.” His thumb hits his chest. “He's my fucking kid. Unless that crack was fucking someone I don't know about?” His dark eyebrows twitch upward. I wish she had. But Charlie is all his. Anna had only just started dating another guy when she was murdered. Who knows if she ever slept with him? Charlie was already here, so it’s a moot point. Drake was the only man Anna slept with, as far as I know. I shake my head. He lifts his shoulders hard, driving them to his ears. Heavy gauges distend the lobes. They’re jet black, like his clothes. Like his heart. “I'll be there.” I jerk the handle up and heave myself inside, slamming the door. Drake strides to the window and gives a single hard rap of his knuckles against the glass. I flinch. Starting the car, I crack the window. “It's not you being there that matters. It's you vouching for me, cunt.” I hate that word. It's so dirty from his mouth. I'm more than the sum of my parts. Ineffectual rage blossoms like a dark flower inside me, swarming my body with heat. His lips twist savagely. “Yeah. I see how you are. What you'd like to do to me. But you can't. I'm in control, see?” I do see, but I won't be manipulated. This won't stop. If I cave to Drake's demands, he won't stop there. He'll want more. He won't stop until he has Charlie. I can't let that happen. His grimy fingers curl over the window rim. I slam the gear in reverse and take off. Drake snatches his hand away. His glare haunts me even after he's out of sight. 3 Noose “Fucking Kent.” “Yup.” Snare squints up at the sky, taking in the Indian summer weather. “Don't really feeling like being errand boy today. Could be eating road.” “Killing road,” I say. He turns to me with a grin. We bump fists again. Good day to be alive. I hit the kickstand with the toe of my boot, and it clicks into place. I let the Road King settle to the side, its engine ticking as it cools. I'm the only brother with a King. I love the smoothness. Of course, I've had every thing under the sun done for speed. The pipes are bigger than a woman's waist. Well, maybe not that big. I grin, striding toward the bank where the club's money gets stowed. The manager's dirty. He'll hold anything for the right price. Road Kill MC always pays the right price for the job. He's a cowardly little simp. But as long as green greases his palm, he's our dog on a leash. Works for us. There’s lots of gang trash thinking they'll move into our territory and infringe on the club's rights. Road Kill will keep killing to maintain what's ours. Got to be proactive with disease, no matter what form it takes. Gangs. Drugs. Trafficking. Whatever. Cancer spreads. Money that can't be laundered gets its own security net. I look up at the sign. A big key logo hovers over the top, imposing and trying for that secure vibe. We're actually kissing distance to Covington. It's not quite the shithole Kent's become, but it's vying for second position. I shake my head with my normal disdain. Nothing's secure. I move through the entrance, and Snare scans the exits and living, breathing scenery. A good sergeant-at-arms will always tally ins and outs, potential threats. This bank is new for us. The one in Tacoma changed hands, and now we have to dick with the newest lackey. The Prez wants it done, so we go to Kent for the new account. Little intro. It's the right city size to cover shit—big, but not so big that we lose sight of our vitals. Vince, aka Viper, has been President of the Road Kill MC since before I was voted in five years ago, and his intuition rivals my own. We make a good team. Same as Snare and I do. Instincts will keep a man alive. Not brains. Not education. Not attitude. That's all show. Living by your gut sees a long life. Men tied to their primal side survive. He gives a low whistle that only I can hear, and I tense. “What?” I offer in a voice just above a hiss. “Check out that broad.” I stifle an eye roll. I'm all business. Get this money hustle out of the way and eat road. I already had pussy for breakfast. Then I see her, and time slows to a crawl. My dick hurts at just a glance. It's not just one thing about her, but a million things. Yeah, she does have some tits. But I've seen tits—dozens of cum-on-them tits. I'm not a piece man; I'm a package man. This chick's got that going in spades: exotic doe eyes so brown that they're almost black and dark-blond hair that's blonder than my own, but rich like honey. I imagine her pouring over my body like the sweet condiment. “Right?” Snare pants with full-on lust. I jab him in the ribs. He huffs. “Fuck you, Noose.” “Come on.” I pick up one boot after another. I'm never nervous around chicks. They're just a place to park my prick. I lick my lips, wondering for the first time in forever what I threw on to cover my body today. Well, my cut, for starters. Snare and I stand at the silken twisted rope. I read the sign. Please wait for next available teller. A text pings, and I slip my phone out of my jeans. It's the simp manager, Ned. Go to teller number three. Cryptic fuck. I don't text back. Guess who's teller number three? You got it—dark, dainty, and delicious. She’s like a fucking chocolate eclair. My tongue darts out and runs over my lip again, betraying my thoughts. She looks up. My balls lift. Holy fuck. “May I help you?” she asks. Hell yes. She's got one of those low contralto voices to match the package. Her words burn through me. Snare puts an elbow in my side. I move forward. “Yeah.” Her caramel eyebrow arches, and my eyes run all over her body, starting at the rack. She's not some slut. She's built better than any girl I've ever seen, but she's modestly dressed. Christ on a crutch, she looks like she just graduated high school. Finally, my eyes hit her face again. Those eyes. Oh yeah, she's trouble. A fine blush runs across her cheekbones. I've embarrassed her. I don't care. She's just some banker chick. My spine straightens. Ned sidles up behind her, placing a familiar hand at her shoulder. A finger slides up the skin of her neck, and I watch her fight to not shrug it off. My lust moves right into anger. Handy. The emotion chases my fog to the shore of my mind. I can think again. Thank fuck. “Rose,” Ned says, “these are the special clients I told you about.” Rose, my mind whispers like a prayer. Fear edges her eyes as she takes me in the way I just did her. My eyes tighten. Must be the tats. Or the cut. Or me. Probably me. I give a sideways look to Snare. His eyes are glued to the tiny bit of cleavage peeking out her fire-engine-red blouse. Dick. “Yes, thank you, Ned.” I sort of hear, Fuck off, Ned. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. He appears to give her an affectionate squeeze, and she shivers. Pleasure? A look of distaste moves across her features and is gone almost before I notice. Nope. Revulsion. I glare at good old Ned, and he shrinks away. I watch him until he disappears into his glass-walled office. “I can help you,” she says quietly. I reach into the flat leather satchel I have and slide a zippered and locked bag across the countertop between her and me. Rose's fingers tremble as she takes it, careful not to touch me. Her fear pisses me off. I would never hurt a woman, even if she begged me to. I'm not one of those sadist fucks. Why do I give two shits if Rose is scared of me? We're the Road Kill MC; lots of people are scared of us. I look at Rose, her dark honey-colored head bends over the money as she puts it in an automatic currency counter. I don't like her being afraid of me. That makes me even more pissed. She's just a woman, like any other woman. They all have vaginas. They are good for fucking. That's it. My dick throbs. And I'm back to goddamned thinking again. How'd that nasty little habit rear its head again? She finishes and looks up. Eyelashes like amber lace sweep down, fanning over the soft-pink color of her cheeks. She looks up from beneath them, and my breath stutters. Her lips move, and I think about kissing them. “What?” I say in slow motion. She’s clearly flustered at having to repeat herself. “I have your receipt.” I nod and hold out my hand. She hands me the square piece of paper. I glance at the figure. Correct. My fingers wrap hers, and the transaction receipt crinkles between us. I can feel her heartbeat through my hand. Our eyes lock. “Thank you,” she says quietly. Her features tighten. “Welcome,” I manage, releasing her hand. She sits there, stunned. Stunning. I pivot to walk away, and Snare follows, smart enough to keep his trap shut. I stuff the receipt inside the security bag and throw it in the satchel that diagonally crosses my body. Snare punches open the door ahead of me, and I move through first. I've been in combat, and taken lives. I've brushed death so closely, I could taste rot on my tongue. But today I've been undone by some bank teller. I'm fucking losing it. “What the fuck was that?” Snare asks, eyes roaming the parking lot. No thugs leap out of their possible hiding places. My shoulders ease down. “What?” I ask, purposely misunderstanding. I hate explaining shit I can't. To myself. To others. “The fucking chick back there.” He yanks his head back at the doors we just passed through. “Your brains were leaking out your ears. And,” he says, voice going low, “you scared the fuck outta her. Nice, Noose. Way to turn on the charm.” “Not all of us can be beautiful.” Snare snorts. “It's not that, you fucking clown. It's that you were all intense and didn't talk, then we deposit a hundred grand? Real circumspect, is all I'm saying.” “Uh-huh. Stop using the big words, Snare. Makes my brain hurt.” “Not as bad as your dick, apparently.” I turn on him, pointing. “Listen, it's no big thing. I'm just distracted.” Snare nods, unconvinced. “You're never distracted, Hoss.” He knows me. We hop on our rides. I open my trunk and toss the empty moneybag in there. I tap my fingers on my thigh. Snare waits. I turn around, unable to make her out through the dark glass. Maybe Rose sees me looking. Maybe she's watching me. The thought of her watching makes me want to jerk off. “Gee-zus. Just go in there and make a play, Noose. What do you have to lose?” His large hands slap jean-clad thighs. His exhale is frustrated. Nothing. I don't have anything to lose because I'm not going to try. Rose is a classy chick. Sluts are easy—and not just for sex. They've got one thing that interests me. And that's enough. I shake my head, and Snare takes me at my silent word. We hit our kickstands and roll out. Just as we're making the turn out of the parking lot a, Fat Boy cruiser turns in. Chaos Rider. Hate those bastards. I peer hard at the guy, who seems sort of familiar. Not sure how. Road Kill knows every club in Washington and the states that surround it. This dude doesn't rep them great. He looks unkempt, like a shower is a wish never granted. As we pull out, I don't like the way it makes me feel to leave the bank, knowing a biker from a rival club will go in there and feast his eyes on Rose. Heat rolls over me in a hot tide of anger. Fuck. I'm already thinking of Rose as mine. But that's for brothers who want that ball and chain. Need it. And that's the problem with that. She's not mine. I don't want to own anyone. 4 Rose I throw the sign up, my heart thundering like a wild horse set loose. Forget that—an entire herd of horses is galloping through my chest. Naomi jerks her head at me in surprise as my rolling stool scrapes along the floor. “Bathroom,” I mutter, fleeing the scene of the crime. Actually, I handled myself professionally. I didn't do anything wrong. It's my body that betrays me, even after he's gone. Now that the big badass biker guy is gone, I can calm down. I haul my cell after me, gripping it like a talisman, and slap open the bathroom door. I stand right in front of the mirror, trying to figure out why that man was so interested. A flushed young woman stares back. I've never been a fan of my looks: weird coloring, big boobs, and a big ass. I guess my waist is small, and my body's toned from running. But my eyes are too big for my face, and my chin, too pointy. My hair can't make up its mind: sort of blonde with a hint of red, but nearly brown too. I've got the girl disease. Low self-esteem. We give it to each other. It's a thing. I grip the tile of the vanity countertop, another stray hair falling out of my topknot. I glance up quickly. Ugh. I had my least exciting hairstyle going. I'd just thrown my longish hair into a haphazard bun and speared a hair stick through the mess. A little red glass bead sparkles out of the bun at the top of the wood stick, matching my blouse. I jerk the V of my blouse higher to cover my cleavage. My boobs smile at the top. Great. Why do I care what that guy thinks of me? Because he made my crotch get struck by lightning when he looked at me as if he would eat me. Right. There. I groan. And how is he any different than Drake? Is this what Anna felt when she saw Drake for the first time? I shiver, releasing the vanity, and run the cold faucet. I slap icy water on my face, letting a few drops dribble down my chest. The fact is nothing's going to cool the heat of my pussy. His face was as hard as granite. That jaw could crush anything it clamped. He had eyes so light that I can't even remember the exact shade, only that they never left any part of me. Luminescent. His hair was a dirty blond, raked back into a tight ponytail at his strong neck. Colorful ink had peeked from the top of a black T-shirt. But the motorcycle gear had been a giveaway. Gang attire, as I think of it. Drake dresses a lot like this guy. But his leather vest has a different emblem. Chaos Riders. This guy’s emblem was Road Kill MC. But really? What's the difference? I know what Drake is. And what he did. So this guy—he of the huge deposit—made me slick. I won't lie. I haven't had a reaction like that from a guy in… Well, I never have. My eyes meet my reflection again. “Don't even think it, Rose,” I say to myself. The Rose in the reflection stares back. She's thinking. Dreaming. What would it be like to be with someone who could consume me? There was a promise of that in his clear eyes. I clench mine shut against the need I see in the mirror. I'm so lonely for male companionship, I ache. But I won't do what Anna did. Charlie makes my life worth something. I won't endanger him because I want to get laid. There must be a man out there I can have sex with who won't be dangerous. Unfortunately, that's obviously not what does it for me. And that scares the living shit out of me. * “Rose!” Charlie squeals, running toward me at high speed. I plant my feet apart, knees slightly bent, preparing. He jumps, little legs wrapping my waist, and I awkwardly twirl him while wearing my high heels. It’s a talent. He laughs, high and pleased, and that tugs at my chest. Being a mother is awful. And beautiful. I smile into his upturned face, which is so like Anna's. His eyes are dark like mine and my sister's. But where my hair is this goofy indecisive color, his is whitish blond. The brown eyes and light blond hair are striking. He looks like a little angel. Charlie doesn't remember his mom. She died when he was one. I make sure I tell him who she was. Anna would be twenty-seven if she’d lived. Now there are only memories. I keep them alive for Charlie. “Did Mommy see my text?” His voice is as light as my heart is heavy. “She saw it. Mommy has a special TV in heaven.” I swallow past the lump in my throat. “Rose?” We turn, and I let Charlie slip down. He slides his little hand inside mine as I turn to smile at his teacher. “Hi, Carla.” Her warm smile never changes. I've known her a long time. She was a friend of Anna's. I picked this district so Charlie could be with someone else who loves him. Open enrollment, it's called. I'm grateful. “Here,” Carla hands me the cell. The state has provided a cell for Charlie as a weird little-known contingency. I fought for the mandate. He is the first child of this age to have one. Children who suffer the death of a parent through violence have more rights. All children whose parents die should have rights. But I hadn't uttered objections to Charlie’s special treatment. Charlie can text me when he wants or whenever he needs. He doesn't know very many words, but the pictures are great. And soon, he'll be texting what he learns. I can't wait. I lift the little cell. “Thanks.” Carla grins, ruffling Charlie's hair. “No problem.” “Mommy saw my text in heaven with her TV,” he exclaims in excitement. “My Lego castle!” Castle. I smile. I guess to Charlie, it must seem like one. A tremulous smile takes the place of the big grin Carla wore a minute ago. She fingers the ends of Charlie's hair, which tries to spring back in uncooperative curls. That was from Anna; my hair is only wavy. I suck in a shaky breath as my eyes meet Carla's. “I'm sure she is so proud of you.” He puffs out his little chest. “Yeah!” He pumps his fist, running for the Smartcar. “Slow down, partner!” I yell after him with a chuckle. He doesn't of course, then jerks open the car door and hops inside. “Lots of energy,” Carla says. “Yeah,” I agree with a tired little sigh. We stand in awkward silence. A breeze comes up just then, undoing more of my hair and lifting Carla's tangled frizz around her head like a dark halo. “Do you need me on Tuesday?” she asks quietly. I need something. But I shake my head. “No,” I answer in a low voice. “You've got Charlie.” My face jerks up, eyes boring into hers, waiting for a verbal confirmation. “Always,” she answers immediately. My shoulders loosen. Carla opens her arms, and I move into them. She squeezes me hard. “For Anna.” I nod because I can't speak. * The meat sizzles as I churn the last bit of ground beef in a frying pan. Charlie crosses his arms across his chest. “I don't like enchiladas.” I know that look. “I'll put extra cheese in.” I raise my eyebrows, waiting for the young prince to decide. He seems to consider my idea, his little fingers cupping his chin. God, he's cute. I pull out my trump card. “You can't go to Papa and Nana's unless you eat your supper.” Guilt pangs riot inside me, but I hold the course, sticking to my tone like glue. He's got to eat, and he needs to visit his extended family. My parents have been really good. They take Charlie every Friday night, and he visits them three nights a week while I exercise. I get Saturday to myself too. Actually, I'm thinking they want me to move on, have some kind of a life outside of the tragedy of four years ago. The courts would have loved to give Charlie to them, but they're too old. Anna and I were dream children. We came after doctors told Mom she couldn't have kids. She was forty-two, and dad was forty-four. What does medicine know about miracles? Anna was born first. We’d had a picture-perfect childhood from parents who thought they would never be blessed with a family. Then tragedy came and wrecked everything. But not before the gift of Charlie. Mom and Dad help, but the burden of a young boy when they're almost seventy isn't fair. Besides, I wanted Charlie. And he wants me. I see love in the shining gazes Charlie gives when he thinks I'm not looking, and the ones when I am. He caves. “Okay, Aunt Rose.” I nod. “Good choice, sweet pea.” Charlie scrunches his face. “Sweet pea is a baby's name.” He frowns. “I call you that because you smell sweet,” I say, folding the meat, cheese, and beans into a tiny tortilla. I pretend I'm considering something, humming a little tune. “I could call you ‘dirty worm’ instead?” I nod as if I'm agreeing with myself. “Yes,” I say with finality. I bring his plate to the table, set it down in front of him, and slide into the seat opposite him. I plop my chin in my hand. “Eat your supper, dirty worm.” I bite my lip to keep from laughing. Charlie purses his lips. I smile. He starts cracking up, and a laugh bursts out of me too. When he can breathe again, he says, “I think sweet pea's okay. For now.” I nod solemnly. “For now,” I agree, thinking about how sad it'll be when I stop calling him that. * “Hey, Dad.” I kiss Dad on the cheek, and he wraps me in a bear hug. “Princess,” he says with a wink and bends over, opening his arms wide. Charlie jumps into them. “Dad,” I chastise, “your back!” He nods. “That'll be the day when I can't pick up my grandson, right, Sir Charles?” Charlie nods in awe. Dad is very formal with him, always calling him Sir Charles and treating him with the utmost respect. I love Dad. It's so great Charlie has a positive male role model. I hate the alternative. “He's had supper?” Mom asks. I get my eyes from her. My parents still look good for their age. Mom plays tennis at the local fitness club, and they golf together. Thinking about them golfing brings a rueful smile to my face. Dad's been known to toss a golf club when he misses a shot. I must get some of my fire from him. I answer Mom, “Yeah, enchiladas.” She taps Charlie on the nose. “Did Rosie give you extra cheese?” “Yeah, but I had the squishy beans,” he says, pulling a long-suffering face as Mom carries him away. “Protein!” I call out loudly as they disappear into the kitchen. Dad chuckles. “Squishy, huh?” I nod. “Yeah. He's a texture kid. If it has the wrong ʻfeel,ʼ he's not a fan.” “I understand completely,” he says with gravity, and I shoot Dad a smile. Two peas in a pod. Dad gives me a head-to-toe look. “Wish you weren't going running. It's almost dark.” His gaze moves to the sidelights that flank the door. My parents live in a modest split level house from the late 70s at the end of one of the many cul-de-sacs of Scenic Hill. The park is at the foothills of the development. I've been going to the park since I was a kid. I’m not stopping now. Drake won't control me through fear. I'm not Anna. I don't say that to Dad. It would be cruel. Instead, I lean forward, rising to my tiptoes, and kiss him on the cheek. “I'll be careful, Daddy.” His lips flatten, every bit of how he feels in the tenseness of his body. But he lets me go. 5 Noose Vince sits at the head of the table, fingering a medallion. The gold circle looks like one of those cheap-ass 1970 holdovers from when dudes wore the open collar and had five chains to show their wealth or wow the chicks. I know better. It's a solid-gold medallion from a war buddy who didn't make it. Vince earned a purple heart after that little showdown. He's a deliberate dude-and the closest I've come to a dad in my life. My old man split when I was a toddler. I just had my whore of a mom. She meant well, but using was more important than taking care of some kid with no man around. And if she didn't have money for her drugs, there was always her body. So the state took over. Foster care was a carousel of hell. I learned a lot about the absence of mercy. Being a Navy Seal taught me how to be a man, though. Real men are selfless. That's being brave. Not acting tough or feigning shit. Doing the right thing for others when there's no audience because you believe it—that's real. Vince keeps that system going in the club. We don't want men who pretend. We don't want citizens. They don't get it. They don't get us. “Money in the bank?” Vince opens church. “Yup,” I reply instantly. “Problems?” His intense eyes shoot first at me then at Snare. New bank, new dog on a leash. Solid question. “No. No problems,” Snare confirms. A flash of the Chaos Rider slides through my head. I must make some sound, because Vince turns sharply in my direction, eyebrows rising. I blow out an exhale. “Saw a Chaos Rider going in as we were coming out.” I shrug. I just want a record of it. That might mean something; it might mean jack. Vince narrows his eyes. “Don't like it.” My gut tightens. That was my feeling. I sure don't like hearing it from Vince. “Coincidence,” Snare offers, throwing out his palm. A few others murmur agreement. Vince plants his elbows on the solid-wood table that stretches nearly the length of the room. “Coincidence is for assholes.” Snare barks out a laugh. “True. But the dude wasn't hiding his presence. And he came in after us.” He folds his arm, lifting a palm off his tatted bicep. My heart rate does a little speeding. Rose. Vince leans back with a nonchalance I know he's not feeling. “I don't like a Chaos sniffing around where our money's held.” “It's not near everything we have. Peanuts, Viper,” our Treasury officer says. Vince drums his fingers on the polished wood. “I still don't like him being there with a new bank. Hell, that pencil dick Ned—he'd suck his own cock if he thought it'd get him more money.” Everyone laughs. The image of Ned putting his hand on Rose rises in my mind. The sound of a pen snapping in my hand wakes me up. Lariat, Snare, and Vince look at me expectantly. “Holding out on us, Noose?” Vince asks quietly, taking in my tension. Fuck. Need to come clean. “I've got a hard-on for this girl.” Enough of a boner I know everything about her now. Snare plunges his forehead into his palm. Vince throws his head back and laughs. “Oh, that's rich. And?” I shift my weight. Vince's smile dies on his face, dark eyes glittering at me. “We're not talking pussies here, Noose. We're talking green and MC.” I give a miserable nod. “Yeah, gotcha.” A beat of silence drums between us. He can't contain his surprise. “Spit it out, son.” I look at Vince, tearing the soft hair band out and raking my long hair back. Strands that are still damp from the shower stick to my fingers. I flick them off with an irritated jerk. “The chick that took the money…” Vince's eyebrows knot. “Yeah? What, a teller?” He gives Snare a hard glance, eyebrows glued to his hairline. God love Snare—he doesn't say a word. “Yeah.” “What do I do with this?” Vince asks, meaty palms out at his side. “Am I pulling hen's teeth here?” He slaps his palms on the wood table, and the sound echoes. “I looked into her.” “Just fuck her, and get it out of your system, Noose.” His voice is even, the simplicity of his suggestion is the therapy I want. If only I could. Smoking’s not allowed at church, but damn, do I want a drag for this confessional. “She's got a tie to Chaos,” I admit slowly. Talking erupts. “Fucking knew it!” Snare growls. Lariat shakes his head, palming his chin, and the other members of the club start shooting questions like bullets. Vince hooks his fingers in his lips. A whistle splits the voices like a sword. Everyone shuts up. “How?” Vince asks. Lariat opens his mouth to speak, and Vince gives him a sharp glance that clearly says, Shut the fuck up. He turns his laser-beam stare on me. “Do we need to take care of this broad?” “No!” I erupt, half-standing. The brothers give me startled glances. I don't back down. I don't know what's happening, besides the slow unravelling of who I am, but nobody's gonna hurt Rose. That I know. My outburst gets Vince's full attention. “About four years ago, one of the Chaos Riders was brought up on murder charges. Killed a girl, Anna Christo,” I explain in a savage growl. I knew I recognized that guy. “Did he?” Vince asks. I look him dead in the eye. “Yeah.” “Charges didn't stick?” Snare guesses. I nod curtly. “They paid a dirty judge. Blamed some minor drug use on her part, some juvy experimentation.” I flip my hair back, cracking my knuckles. “Anyway, the chick's dead.” “What's this got to do with our bank girl that you want to bone?” Heat rolls over me, warming my guts. “His name's Drake Corbin. Road name, Diablo.” “Fucking Diablo? That girl is tied up with him? How?” Snare asks. I nod. Things couldn't be fucking worse. Chaos runs girls and does worse than what we'll dabble in. No line is uncrossable; no shred of morality remains for them. It's all about power, and if people get crushed in the way, then so be it. Though we miss thugdom by just a slim margin, we're old school—real old school. “Anna Christo was her sister.” “Fuck me.” Snare dumps his head in his hand again. “Want my opinion?” Vince asks. “No.” He gives a short laugh. “Well, you're getting it.” His eyes hold mine like a trap. “You bang every piece of tail that trots through our doors—” “Or not,” Snare mutters. I glare at him. Vince nods at the remark and continues, “And when you finally find old lady material, you choose some girl that's mixed up with our number one rival.” I wipe my damp palms on my jeans. “I don't want an old lady.” “Uh-huh.” Vince raps his knuckles once on the table. “I don't think it's fair that this girl's gotta deal with this scumbag. Ya know how Diablo can make people disappear. Probably the only reason she's not gone yet is it would point a finger at him.” “What can the brothers do for you?” Snare asks. He was there at the bank; he saw me unwind for this girl. And I haven't laid a finger on her. I'm so fucked. I press my fingertips on the table. “I want to offer her Road Kill protection.” Voices explode again. Vince hits the gavel on the placard. “Hey!” They all stop talking. “Do you? You've met this girl once? You've never even done her?” Vince's eyes are wide, his body tense. “Yeah.” I know I sound like a pussy. Maybe it's nothing between us. Maybe she'll hate my fucking guts. Maybe Rose won't. Vince grunts. “Fine. But on the QT. That's all we need is to start a war with Chaos for a chick you haven't even banged.” I shut my eyes, pinching the bridge of my nose. “There's another thing.” “Fucking glorious. Drop the bomb, Noose.” “Diablo made a kid with this girl he killed.” “Oh shee-it,” Lariat says in a vague voice. “Let me guess—this teller girl's got the kid.” “Bingo.” I set my eyes on each brother, finally coming back to Vince. “Her name is Rose.” “Rose.” He seems to taste her name on his tongue. The silence is deafening. “Diablo's gonna consider this kid his property,” Viper says as a statement. Lots of assenting voices agree. Not a single kid from the brothers isn't considered a precious commodity. Old ladies too. We protect our families. Chaos is no different in that respect. They're club. They're fucking merciless, but they're still club. Just not our club. “He lost his rights to the kid for four years, and the time's up.” My eyes sweep the assembled brothers. “There's a hearing coming up. He's gonna want his rights.” “Why would he kill the mother of his kid?” Vince asks, shaking his head. “Diablo?” I ask. “Fucker is serial brutal with women. He can't have normal sex or relationships unless he's causing someone pain.” “You fuck him?” Lariat asks with a laugh. I'm out of my seat and fisting his shirt from across the table, hauling him an inch away from my nose. “No, but there's been plenty of sweet butts who have, and they quack like fucking ducks about strange rangers.” “Noose,” Vince says. I release Lariat. He gives me a sullen look, smoothing out his cut, which got all twisted up with my hold. “He's right. Our sweet butts wouldn't go near that club.” “They won't go near the club because we don't want their sloppy seconds,” Snare says. We all nod. The club whores don't get passed around to other clubs. “It's just their word,” Wring says. I nod. “Yeah, but why would a sweet butt lie? Most of them just want to be somebody's property eventually.” My comment is met by silence. It's the truth. That tends to shut people up. “I don't normally give a shit how other clubs get off,” Vince says, and good natured laughing crawls around the room. “And if Chaos has some riders who like shit rough and the bitches are willing—have at it. But”—his eyes catch the anger I level on him—“if there was a girl that was unwilling, say, caught up,”—he does air quotes then lets his fingers drop—“and Diablo fucked up and killed her, and now he's after an innocent.” Vince shrugs. “It's really not our problem. Unless you want to throw down for her, Noose.” My heart is beating a hole out of my chest. Hell no. I don't want to throw down for anyone but my brothers. I'm all club. I don't love, feel, or want. Rose's face is etched like an acid burn in my brain. Vince steeples his fingers. “Figure this out, Noose. Feel this Rose out. You've gotta be unable to breathe unless she's in the room for what you're asking. She's a dangerous woman to protect.” “Jesus, for a pussy?” Lariat asks, snorting. “Shut the fuck up, Lariat. Count the goddamned pennies. It's what you're good at,” Snare grates to our treasurer. I say nothing. There's no defense for what I’m asking. I don't even know myself. I need to get my shit ironed out. Vince indicates my seat. I finally sit after the first tirade of my time with Road Kill MC. He bangs the gavel. “We meet tomorrow. Noose is going to let us know how it goes with Rose the bank teller. Aunt of a kid that is our number one rival's sergeant-at-arms.” No pressure. I go. 6 Rose Only three days away. I pound along the path, feeling the breeze lift the small hairs at the back of my neck. It's been three days since Drake threatened me. It's been two since I had an ultimate pussy meltdown at the bank with the mystery biker man. I never even got his name. The deposit was in the name of a company. I shiver at the memory of our encounter. Part of the shiver is fear. Most of it is fear. Drake is dangerous. Biker Man is too. He didn't have to tell me what he was capable of. I could feel it, though I didn't feel like his natural menace was directed at me. Dappled sunlight blankets the path like fallen leaves of translucent gold. Faraway voices travel to me. I enter the zone. Endorphins kick in, and I lengthen my strides, eating up the familiar path. Blood rushes in my veins, and a light sweat breaks out as I relax my shoulders and concentrate on my stride. Greens, browns, and gold are a streaming watercolor in my peripheral vision. A movement from my blindspot is a blur of shadowed color. An instant later, I'm tumbling through the air. My arms whip out, trying to arrest my fall, but I only manage to knock the wind out of myself. I land on my back, halfway into a slope that leads to the ravines that flank the narrow asphalt path. I blink slowly. A dense canopy of trees intersect overhead in a dance of wind and light. A small sunbeam strikes me in the left eye, and I turn my head, lungs burning for oxygen. Did I trip on a root? A shadow moves over my face. Drake stands above me. I open my mouth to scream, but he clamps a hand over my lips. I bite him, trying to make my teeth meet, and he howls. I roll to the side, leaping to my feet. No breath. My hair falls out of its loose knot, and Drake grabs it, hauling me back against him. His blood gets in my mouth as his hand covers my lips. “Bite me again, and I'll hurt you so bad, Rose. So bad. Believe me?” His free hand covers my sex and squeezes. Hard. I scream, but his palm over my mouth muffles the sound. “Feel me, bitch?” I nod. Charlie! “I got the feeling you weren't really listening last time we had a little chat.” I try to say something, and his hand slides to my throat, squeezing so I can't speak. “Gonna play nice?” Stars burst inside the field of my vision. I manage a nod. “Yes,” I squeeze out. He tosses me onto the ground. I hit hard, fingernails biting into the pine needles and dirt. My eyes are glued to his crotch as he unbuckles his jeans. “You've got to be kidding me,” I say hoarsely. Drake smiles—if his expression can be called that. It's really just a baring of teeth. “I never joke about punishment, Rosie.” I flinch at the use of my nickname from his lips. “My dick won't leave any marks that can be seen at the hearing, but you'll do what I want.” I scoot back, and he lunges, falling on top of me and pinning me with his body weight. I beat on him with my fists. No! He kicks my knees open, jerking my yoga pants down low on my thighs. I go still. Drake smiles in triumph. I knee him in the balls. His eyes pop open, bulging, and he gurgles some kind of unintelligible sound. I crawl away then stumble to a standing position, half-jerking up my yoga pants. Then I'm running. I sprint, flames threading through my lungs. I don't look left or right. I move through the path like the devil is chasing me. Because he is. * Noose I look down the winding path of asphalt. Not fucking safe. No woman should be jogging these fucking trails. Especially with night breathing down day's neck. I flick my smoke on the ground and tramp it with the thick edge of my boot's tread. The tip glows like a bloated firefly for a moment then goes dark. That’s sort of littering. I sort of don't give a fuck. I cross my arms and chance a glance at the tiny car Rose drives. I smirk. What an unsafe piece of shit that is. Of course, I just like the thought of her ass on the back of my bike. Hanging on to me. I actually made an effort to look less… however I normally look. I wore a white T-shirt instead of a black one. Hey, it's a start. I've been waiting. Impatiently. The prospect I had tailing her the past two days says Rose runs here a lot while the nephew stays with the parents. I snort, lighting up another smoke. Fucking kid. God, do I know how to pick them. I realize now there's no such thing as easy pussy. It's like in the whole fucking world, all I could choose was complicated pussy. Yeah, that's me. I hear pounding footsteps and straighten, dumping my half-finished cig and squishing it without my normal finesse. I crack my knuckles and begin to pace. I'm dying to set eyes on her again, to see if that chemistry was an anomaly. Rose flies toward the open parking area as if her ass is on fire, long hair streaming behind her. I frown. Grass and twigs litter the strands of dark gold, and her brown eyes are too wide in her face. My instincts come to life. I move without thinking, intercepting her as she stumbles. I catch her easily. The chemistry's not a lie. It's like the unpleasant feeling of getting shocked by electricity, but it feels good instead. I get an instant hard-on. Then her frightened face turns to mine. Fingerprints mar the pale skin of her neck. Someone laid hands on Rose. Rage seats itself in the center of me, and I don't ask her if she's okay, say hi, or explain my presence. “Who?” I say in a voice filled with all the anger I can't suffocate. “What?” she asks, so out of breath that her one-word question is a whisper. “Who did this?” I jerk my head toward her neck. No response. So I drag her away from her car, and she screams, dropping to the ground. Okay. I haul her easily into my arms, and she thrashes, beating me with her fists. “Fuck!” I bellow. “Trying to help here!” Rose stops whacking me. Big tears spill out of her eyes, and she clutches my shirt. “You're not going to hurt me?” she asks in that same harsh whisper. I push hair out of her eyes, which are leaking everywhere. All my carefully rehearsed words fly out the window. “Fuck no. I wouldn't ever hurt you.” “What are you doing here?” Good fucking question. I've been asking myself that all day. “You gonna freak out again if I set you down?” She shakes her head. I don't know, looks like it could go either way. I set her down carefully, and we assess each other. “You're tall,” she says. “You're beautiful,” I blurt, and instantly want to kick my own ass. But she smiles. Not a fake thing that gets pasted on, but a genuine, makes-my-heart-pound smile. She looks down at her feet. “Why are you here?” Yeah, that. “I wanted to talk to you.” Her head whips up. Half her hair is falling out of some bun thing in the back. I want to run my fingers through it, but I manage to restrain myself. “You don't know me,” she says. I touch the red marks on her neck and ask more gently, “Who did this?” She seems to remember something and whirls around, facing the path she came shooting out of like a loose cannon. I study the gloom but don't see anything. Rose turns back and mumbles, “Nobody.” Right. I smile then. I know it's not a nice smile. “So you choked yourself.” I mime wrapping my own fingers around my throat, making choking noises. When she blushes, I drop my hands. “Don't cover for some prick. Who did this?” My eyes rake her body. Her exercise pants are rolled down from her waist on one side as if they were screwed on the wrong way. A large bruise sits at her hip. I touch it, fingertips feathering across the mark. Rose gasps, clutching my hand. We groan at the same time. “God,” I say through my teeth, my dick beginning to stand at attention. “What is it?” she asks, her eyes searching mine for answers. “I don't know, but I'm gonna find out.” Rose moves away, and I don't press. “You have marks on you. And I don't like it. Explain.” She glances down then laughs. “That's me being a klutz. I ran into a countertop at work.” Thank Christ. That still doesn't explain the throat. I stare at her skin. “You—I don't know who you are, not really.” I adjust my crotch with a shift of my weight. “Yeah, ya do. I met you at the bank three days ago.” Her laugh is shaky. “True, but obviously you're an important client, and… well, I don't associate with… bikers,” she says softly. No disrespecting the club. I hate that Rose does. I take a step closer, and she flinches. Her fear pisses me off. “I don't hurt women. And I would never hurt you.” She nods. “I believe you. But this thing”—she indicates her throat—“isn't any of your business, and I'm okay now.” Her eyes dance away from mine. It isn't fucking okay, and we both know it. “Take a ride with me,” I say suddenly. She shakes her head, nervous eyes roaming my ride. Fuck. I work it up from the bottom of somewhere and finally ask, “Please.” I offer my hand, palm up. Rose studies my face for a long time. Women don't reject me. I never gave a shit before. I feel a wave of heat climbing my face as she stands there silently. Then Rose surprises the hell out of me when her much smaller hand slides inside mine. It feels right. And dangerous. 7 Rose Wind. Noise. Smells. The temperature drops as we move through a swale in the winding country road. The heat of his body seeps into mine, providing warmth. My hands tighten around his narrow waist. The smell of WD-40, mint, smoke, and bike wafts from his leather coat. It's his smell. I don't even know his name. He could be a murderer. But my heart says no. We're way east of Kent, almost to Ravensdale, by the time the bike slows, and we're rolling to a stop in front of a little cabin. The pipes rumble, their heat warming my left leg. I glance at my sports watch. I'm late—because I'm on the back of a bike with a man I don't know, in a place I've never been. I slip off the seat. I'm so cold, my teeth chatter. I was smart enough to put my hair back in a semblance of a bun, but my fingers were shaking so badly that I did a crappy job. He gets off and turns around as the kickstand sinks into the sparse gravel that blankets the dirt road. The sun has fallen low and burns red across the trees, coating them like spilt blood. Fingers of the seeping light trail over his skin, coating it in tangerine edged by scarlet. I think he'll come for me, peppering me with more questions. Instead, he leans back against the seat of the bike and crosses his feet at the ankles. He digs inside a little pouch attached to the front of the bike between the handlebars and jerks out a pack of cigarettes, forearm muscles rippling with the movement. He flicks one out the top and clamps his lips around it. A lighter appears, and the flame is a spot of gold in the dying light surrounding us. “I don't even know your name,” I say quietly, trying to look everywhere but at him. Impossible. Like a magnet, his gaze seizes me again. All of me. To all of him. “Noose,” he replies, blowing smoke rings at the sky. The twilight closes around the pale ring of smoke, darkening it to nothing as the breeze carries it away. Noose. That's not a name, but an object. My disquiet returns. “I guess you know my name.” My voice sounds disgruntled. I cross my arms, which are still warm from the heat of his body, but chilled by the ride. His chin kicks up. “I know everything about you.” I retreat a step. His eyes narrow at my tense body as he takes another drag of his cigarette. “Not gonna hurt you. Thought we figured that part out.” I blow out the oxygen I've been storing up in a shaky exhale. “I want to believe you.” I do. So much. “I have to text my parents. They have—” “Charles?” His eyebrow quirks. My breath stills again. “You scare me,” I admit, cupping my elbows. He straightens from the seat, flicking the cigarette. He moves toward me like a big prowling cat. “I scare a lot of people, but I—” Noose comes to stand in front of me. His finger trails down my neck. Each time he finds a mark on my throat, the movement stalls. The rough caress of his skin hesitates at each spot Drake's fingers choked me. “I'm not someone you need to be scared of, Rose.” The way he says my name… I close my eyes at his touch and the deep rumble of his voice. Remember Charlie. I step away, and Noose just watches, his hand falling away from me. I take my cell from my hoodie pocket and quickly text Dad to say that I ran into a friend. My eyes move to Noose's face. Bathed in low red light, he’s sinister. Swallowing hard, I tap out the message, asking if they can keep Charlie a little longer. Their answer rises to the top of my cell screen like trapped smoke under glass. Yes. Noose is observant. “Your parents cool to watch the kid longer?” “Yes.” He holds out his hand, and after a heartbeat's hesitation, I take it. Noose moves toward the front door of what looks like a little homesteader's cabin. He turns at the last second, and the last piece of daylight catches his eyes just perfectly. They're gray, a shade so translucent they're opaque ice. * “What is this?” I ask as he stokes wood in a fireplace bordered by huge mottled river stones of beige and charcoal, with veins of black. “Us or the place?” Noose asks, his broad back facing me as he expertly prepares the wood to burn. Both. Instead, I answer, “This place.” That's easier. “Belongs to the club. Place to crash. Thought we had more shit to discuss.” He's a tough man. I knew that when we stared across the bank counter at each other the day before yesterday. Noose stands from the fireplace, and I take him in, from the bright-white T-shirt to the tips of his black thick-tread boots. He's covered in ink, some of it colorful, some of it pure black against his light skin. His beard is long, square, and well-manicured. It’s slightly red, I think, but the glowing light of the fire and a kerosene lantern lick strange shadows across the battered floor, making everything muted and uncertain. His hair is spun dark gold in this light, but I remember in daylight, it was light brown. All my checking him out ends at his hands, his thighs, and the breadth of his chest. He's such a large guy, so strong that everything else is just icing on top of the man cake. He knows it, but he's not cocky, just sure of himself. I've seen muscular guys before, as well as tall guys and handsome men. Noose is all this but somehow more. There's a vibrating energy to him, a substance. I don't know what it is, but that wonderful intensity responds to mine like a harmony to melody. I want to run my hands along every ink mark on his body. I've never followed a crazy impulse in my life. But here I am. Noose smolders under my silent observation. My insides cook as he stares back at me. “I want to talk.” I lick my lips. A slow smile turns his face from hard to handsome before I take my next breath. “But you want to fuck me more,” he says like a statement, no intro or thought as to why we're here. I’m struck by the coincidence of him showing up when Drake was going rape me, though he doesn't know that. He offers no explanation as to why some biker I met two days ago knows everything about me—and about Charlie. I shake my head when what I really want to do is launch myself at him like a monkey and sink myself on top of him. I shut my eyes against the vision I have of us together. When I open them, Noose is standing in front of me. I startle. I didn’t hear him move. When I open my mouth to ask the questions that really matter, he takes my lips with his own. I expect him to ravage me, but it's a brush of lips. His fingers bite into the flesh of my shoulders, cupping them forward as if he'll fold me into him, and I’ll disappear. * Noose My dick's gone somewhere from stiff to fucking agony. If my wood had claws, it would be digging its way out of my jeans. Trying to ease my suffering, I shift while Rose stares at me. No dice. Her eyes are deep moving pools of brown as they travel over my body. Rose's eyes are like a physical touch everywhere they move. I don't feel like smoking, talking, or other bullshit. I want to be inside her. That's the only thing I want. But I let her look. Finally, her gaze hits my eyes. “I want to talk.” Nope. Conversation sounds like a shit idea at the moment. I have to touch her, have a taste. Anything. Then we can talk. I take a chance. “But you want to fuck me more.” A fine blush spreads across her face, and she shakes her head. Bullshit. Rose feels this—whatever the fuck it is—just as much as I do. She's resisting it, though. Rose closes her eyes as if she can't stand looking at me anymore. I stalk to her and grab her shoulders, gentleness gone before it began. Her eyes pop open, startled. I brush my lips above hers when what I really want to do is fuck her mouth with my tongue. But I won't force a woman. I don't have to. Still, I can't deny I'm desperate for this woman. Rose stills, and I deepen the kiss. I suck and peck at her lips, tasting sweat and sweet flesh. Rose moves against me, finally. Her hands clutch the side of my T-shirt and my boner nudges her in the stomach. I draw her against me, and our heartbeats thump together as I release the hard hold of her shoulders and let one hand glide to the small of her back. She opens her mouth, and my tongue glides in as though it's always belonged there. I loop it inside, our tongues twisting as my other hand goes to her head, tearing the bun apart. All that hair spreads between my fingers. I wrap my hand in its silk and park my fist at her nape. Rose groans, and I come apart. Tender isn't part of me. I yank her against me, moving my hips against her slit, splitting it apart with my prick through the thin material of her yoga pants. “I—” I eat the word Rose tries to say. Sucking her bottom lip into my mouth, I nip it, growling low in my throat. Why Rose would instantly make me an animal is a question I don't take time to answer. My cock throbs against her pussy, banging for entry with each pulse of my boiling blood. My hold on her hair tightens, and a little pain noise mixed with pleasure slips between us. I loosen my grip, working my lips down her neck. I pull back to study the evidence of another man's fingers on her throat. To my surprise, I kiss each one. “No one”—peck, suck, lick—“will ever touch you in violence again.” Her knees give, and I swing her into my arms. Her eyes sparkle like ebony gems as I carry her to the first surface that presents itself. I spread Rose on a banquet-length table. It's hard. I rip a blanket off the back of a beat-up rocking chair and stuff it underneath her hips. “I'm not screwing you,” she says in a breathy voice. I can work with that. For now. Saying nothing, I jerk down her yoga pants. She plants her knees together like a rubber band snapping into place. “I won't fuck you until you beg for it, baby.” Her eyebrows set together in a frown. “Let me touch you.” My voice vibrates with my need. Rose rolls her bottom lip into her mouth, and the nod is there only if I'm watching for it. I am. 8 Rose I give my consent with the barest nod. I hardly move my neck before Noose is pushing between my legs, powerful shoulders kicking my knees aside as he tears my panties away. How can I do this when I was just attacked? Probably because this assault is one I want. I try to clamp my knees together; I don't know why. I've given this stranger permission to do what he wants. I have the feeling that Noose doesn't have to ask much. He dips his face between my legs. “Beautiful,” I hear, and then his tongue's on me, jamming into my clit like a finger on a button. Wet. Hot. He laves the sensitive little nub, and I cry out. He lifts his head, beard drenched with my juices, pale eyes like glittering ice above my mound. “Are we cool?” he asks in a low voice. I manage to nod. Cool? Hell no—hot! Those hard eyes soften like haze, then his tongue is dancing on my pussy, gently biting and nipping my labia and traveling down to stab my starved, soaked entrance. My hips buck, and his mouth travels with my movement like water following a slope. “Ah!” I scream into the silence of the cabin. My palms smack the table hard enough to hurt, and a forearm firmly plants on top of my stomach, pinning me in place. I writhe, and Noose disallows movement as his tongue rolls over my clit again and again. I didn't shave today. I'd been running for half a mile before Drake attacked me. I'm not perfect. There's no candlelight and sexy lingerie. I don't even know Noose. But my body does. My legs spread wider as he attacks my pussy as if it's his last meal. “Oh God!” I whip my face back and forth. I'm hyperventilating, and strands of hair suck into my mouth as I pant. I blow them out, making small noises of distress. I'm not distressed; I'm sexed up as if I'm going to die. His finger stabs my wet entrance, and I whimper. “That's right. Come on my face, Rose,” he whispers in a hot breath over my fevered slit. His voice commands me. I blow, exploding all over his mouth and tongue. His finger hooks inside me, and I feel my pussy spasm over it, sucking and pulling the digit in a death grip. His low chuckle has my eyes snapping open. Then he stabs me in the middle of my clit with his tongue. My eyes slam shut as I come again, shattering as he holds me down on the table, my athletic gear hanging off an ankle from my dangling feet. Noose slowly stands and wipes the proof of my arousal off with the back of his hand. “Tasty.” Heat boils over me like a river of blisters, and I burst into tears. My pussy's still throbbing from his expert tongue, mouth, and lips. But I'm lying splayed out like a whore. I just let some guy I don't even know eat me out. I've never done that. Charlie's languishing at my parent's while I'm being a slut. What the fuck is wrong with me? Cool fingers run over my face then glide down my hips as I sob my heart out. Noose lifts me, cradling me into his body in a tight ball. I feel myself being held, walking where he takes me. We sit down somewhere, and I open my eyes. My lower half is naked, and one boob is oozing out of my double sports bra. His large hand palms the back of my skull. “Hey, was it something I said?” His lips quirk, and I start laughing. I can't stop. First tears, then this. Comic relief. Finally, when I've settled down to hiccups, I confess, “I'm so embarrassed.” “Don't be.” His restless fingers lightly graze over my forehead, eyelids, and cheeks. A single finger runs the length of my bottom lip, and I smell myself on him. My pussy gives a little squeeze, as though begging for more. He kisses my mouth. “Every sound you make is one I want to hear.” “I've never done that,” I say against his lips. His eyebrows rise. “Gonna have to clarify that, Rose. Never had anyone eat that delicious pussy of yours? Never?” My eyes shift to my bare pussy. My eyes rip up to his gaze again, light like glass and deep like smoke. They don't leave mine, pinning me just as surely as his arm did earlier. I can't take his penetrating gaze. “Both. All of it,” I say to my hands. “I've never had someone go down on me. Never done anything like this. Just—God—let you do that stuff to me, and I don't even know you.” Noose plows his fingers through his hair, clearly irritated. “Time to move past that. I told ya, I know you. I know everything I need to know.” I stare at him. His smile is wide but tense at the edges, as if he's suffering. Then I notice his hard-on is raging beneath me. “Oh!” I say, vaguely horrified. I shift. He groans. “You're killing me, Rose.” “I-I don't mean to”—my eyes flick to his—“kill you.” Noose's eyes hood. “I think you mean to.” Oh boy. I shake my head. He flips me over onto my back. We're on a couch now. My legs fall open, and I don't try to hide. He's seen the whole show. Noose gazes down anyway, looking at everything his mouth just touched. His finger dives inside me, and I sigh. My eyes flutter shut. Oh God, please don't let him stop. Noose's finger works deep. “Why the tears, Rose?” My back arches, and pleasure churns, ready to spark. “I don't want to…” My eyes slit open. “Want to what?” Noose's body is covering mine, one strong arm holding him off me while his finger pumps deep inside. “Want to be like Anna,” I whisper miserably. The finger exits. His lips fall on mine like heated rain, petal soft, smooth, and insistent. “Who are you?” Noose asks. “Rose,” I answer. “You're the girl I want. Not some ghost.” I nod. There's no doubting I'm not my sister. And I'm not some slut, contrary to my recent behavior. Suddenly Noose backs off. His pants went somewhere, and his cock stands at rigid attention between his powerful legs. I didn't let the smoking fool me that he's not fit. I could see every hard inch of him through his clothes. There's not a soft piece on Noose. He's all man. All muscle. But his cock is too big. Too insistent. Noose takes ahold of all that manhood, stroking himself as I watch. Intently and methodically, he works his length. As though mesmerized, I lean forward to close my much smaller hand over his. Noose's head kicks back at my touch. His lips part, and his thick throat works up and down as he swallows. My eyes linger at his cock, taking in the almost angry look to it. I lower my face, my hair trailing over his bare thighs, and I put my hands on each one for balance. Flicking my tongue over the swollen head of his erection, I wrap my lips around the tip and slide down just enough to cover the head. “God!” Noose roars, grabbing my head and fisting my hair. I'm suddenly scared. He senses it. “Not hurting you. But if you don't suck me off this second, I'm gonna die.” I smile, working lower. Instinctively, I take a hand back up his shaft, squeezing as my mouth climbs higher and I pop my mouth off the tip of him. Noose's chin dips, and his eyes blaze dark pewter at me. I slam my lips on him, giving hard hand all the way down to the base of him. I squeeze. “Shit,” his voice shakes as his stomach muscles clench. A strand of his hair falls forward out of the tight ponytail as his clear gaze simmers into mine, and my hand runs up the square muscles of his stomach to his nipple. I pinch the erect tip as I ram my mouth as far as I can go on him. Noose's shout is strangled. I gag. His erection grows tighter beneath my lips, and he comes hard. Hot jets of seed shoot down my throat. I swallow reflexively, taking everything he gives me. My fingers slide down his body, which is coated in a light sweat, and I slip my lips off the end of him. “Goddamn,” he says, collapsing backward onto the couch. I watch him, unsure of everything. Him. Me. He studies my face for a second. “Come ʼere,” he says, grabbing me and lifting me onto his lap. He pushes my hair away from my face for the second time. “Where'd you learn to do that?” “You like it?” I ask, hearing the uncertainty in my voice. “You're my first.” I love the power I feel admitting that and knowing I made him come. Noose tilts my face up. His eyes dredge my soul. “Your last,” he says with finality, tucking my head underneath his chin. Drowsiness takes over. I don't feel sleep come for me when it does. * Soft kisses wake me. I shoot up. Noose moves with me. “Oh God,” I say, whipping my arm out for a cell phone that's nowhere around. “What time is it?” I grumble. Noose chuckles, checking me out. “Aren't we pissing rainbows?” I glare at him. “Almost midnight.” “Shit.” “Why shit?” he asks. I scowl. He smooths the frown between my eyes. “Listen, I texted your parents.” “Oh my God!” I shriek. He covers my mouth with a finger. “Asked if they could keep Charlie for the night.” I fall back on the couch, my forearm flopping over my eyes. “This is so dumb.” “Again, very vague.” Warmth colors his voice. I peek out between my fingers. His eyes are dark; his mouth tight. Anger. I sit up, scooting my legs back and wrapping my arms around my knees. I notice I'm naked, and my eyes hunt for my stuff. Noose stands, also naked but not caring in the least. My eyes are glued to the view of his tight ass as he strides to my yoga pants and chucks them at me. I catch them, jamming them on without panties. My underwear's in a ripped pile by the table where he… Yeah. Heat floods my face, and I don't have to look in a mirror to feel my shame. Noose ate me. I swallowed his cum. All of it. I didn't leave a drop behind. Gee-zus. He texted my parents as if he were me and lied. So I could sleep. So we could be together. I stand and face him. I have to be smarter than this. “Listen,” I begin, shoving my thick hair behind my shoulder. “Don't give me some fucked-up Dear John thing.” His huge cock comes half alive. I can't have a conversation with him naked. “Can you… get something on?” I swing my palm at his hard, hot body. He crosses his arms, dick bobbing, muscles undulating as he folds them across his broad chest. “No.” Okay. I gulp back my fear, shame, and lust in a tight ball of misery. Don't ask, Rose. “What's a ʻDear Johnʼ?” I ask anyway. An angry slash of lips splits his face. “It's a fucking blow off. A dismissal.” His words bite. Oh. I can't do Noose right now. I shut my eyes. Great choice of words, Rose. I say, “I can't have a boyfriend right now. I have some stuff going on, important stuff.” Like not getting raped before the hearing. Like protecting Charlie from his monster of a dad. Noose's eyebrows hike. “Who said I want a girlfriend?” The pit of my stomach falls into the abyss of emotional fallout. “Then what was this?” I ask, voice small as I wave a hand between us. Noose lifts a shoulder. “Getting off,” he says, voice hard. “You're fucking great at that. Blew me like a pro.” I step back as if he hit me. “Blew you?” Heat travels from my toes up my body in a nauseating wave. Oh shit. I haven't had a bit of food in almost six hours. By now, I would have been back at Mom and Dad's, had some protein, and maybe a juice. I sway. Great timing, as always. Noose's face changes to concern. “What-what the fuck is going on? Rose!” he bellows, but I'm staggering back. Pass out time. “Sorry,” I whisper and begin to topple. Strong arms catch me, but my head is attached to the noodle of my neck. It rolls against his bulging bicep. “Rose,” he says anxiously, all the toughness gone. “Candy,” I whisper with the last of my consciousness before his face narrows to a circle and is gone. 9 Noose Holy fuck, that girl's got a mouth. Slick and wet, her lips and tongue glide over the tip of my cock like a moist, heated glove. My heart slams against my ribcage, breaths coming in tight pants. I hadn't meant anything when I'd leaned back. I needed some space; Rose had made it clear she wasn't fucking me. But I had a load and nowhere to put it. I thought I'd jerk off and get the edge off. If she watched, cool. Rose is doing more than watching. Her hot mouth moves over my cock just right. Then she adds the hand, instantly ratcheting up the gonna-blow factor by a thousand. My cock gets harder with each pass of her hand and mouth. I wrap her hair in my fist and gently shove her face down, following her lead. Her fingers come away for a moment, and I groan at the loss of her touch. Rose gives me a titty-twister that's as hot as fuck, and my balls crawl up high, tingling with my load. I open my mouth to ask where she wants it. I know where I want it. Then she squeezes. I reactively press her face to the base of me and helplessly unload into her mouth, throbbing my cum deep in her throat. I moan, dying. Living. Rose comes up for air, and I release her head. She flicks her pink little tongue over the tip of me, and I shudder. I lose it for a second and fall back against the couch. I slit my eyes, looking at this girl I didn't know three days ago. Her eyes are full of uncertainty. I gather her against me, and she asks if I liked what she did. Like it? Love is more like it. That worries the fuck out of me. * Rose zonks out after our fun, and I let her sleep on me, watching every breath, eyes roaming the body I just tasted. Mainly, my eyes go back to her mouth. I think about it riding my cock and taking my load. Hot. As. Fuck. I gently roll her off me, settling the blanket over her lower half with real regret. Exhaling roughly, I turn away from the view. I don't want her folks freaking out about her not coming home to pick up the kid. They're the type to overreact and call the cops. My mind shuffles through the blue on the Road Kill payroll. We don’t have enough to prevent a little problem sprouting like a weed. I jam a cig between my lips, light up, and walk to the front door of the cabin. I crack it, exhaling smoke rings out the door and reading text messages. Ah. Calls the kid Charlie. I read through a few texts to the parents and see a huge Lego tower with a proud-looking kid. He has blond hair and eyes like Rose’s. I chuckle, flipping an ash. Cute kid. Drake's kid. My laughter vanishes. Motherfucker. I quickly tap out a text to her parents. They answer back, no problem. I don't tell them I had my tongue in their daughter or that my cock is next. That might get their full attention. I stab the cig out on the porch, making triple sure it's out. I turn back to Rose as she sleeps. The rise and fall of her chest is peaceful. My eyes chase the breaths, latching onto that fine rack. God, how could there be a woman this gorgeous in existence? How am I lucky enough to have stumbled into her? Complicated pussy, my mind reminds me. Yeah. Fuck. But what a pussy it is. I toss my hair back into the tight ponytail, walking naked back to where she lies, and settle down. I can wake her before we ride outta here. I let her sleep a little bit—before I get fucking answers to who touched her. * I swim awake, groaning. Rose has jerked up, frantic and disoriented, her arms flailing around—looking for her cell, I guess. I smirk. I fold an elbow behind my head, feeling pretty goddamned pleased with getting shit done. No worries. Then Rose melts down. I tell her I got the parents dealt with. The kid's safe. We got off in peace, and it was fucking righteous. Then she says it's dumb. I get pissed. For me. For the club. I did something for Rose—lots of fucking somethings. And she's not one damn bit appreciative. She's a bitch on wheels when she wakes up. Standing, I feel myself scowl. She scoots back, hiding her hot pussy from me, gazing back with wary eyes. Fuck this. Her eyes are darting around for her shit. Fine. I stalk over there, scoop her pants up, and toss them at her like a baseball. Rose catches them, hurt flashing in her eyes, then slams them on in a hurry, covering up every succulent inch. My prick nods at the sight. Sometimes, I hate my fucking dick. Hard to act like you don't give a shit when your dick is wagging its tail. She's building up to something, and I head it off at the pass. “Don't give me some fucked-up Dear John thing.” Her mouth opens and closes, her eyes dipping to my cock then shifting to my face. “Can you—can you get something on?” “No,” I say. No. Can. Do. She looks at me as if she's ashamed she went down on me. Hell, I took her apart with my mouth, and she fucking cried afterward. Her reaction could have been the whole assault thing I showed up at the tail end of. I don't know. But I know I played her body the way I've always done it. I knew her. She knew me. Instinctively. I shove that thought away. It's her and me right now. Period. She asks what Dear John means. I tell her, each word a punch. Then I tell her she's a real pro about sucking me off, like a whore. Rose is no whore. She's just a fucking natural. Never blown a guy before, and she makes me cum in two minutes flat. Jesus. Her face crumples, and I feel like a major tool. “Blew you?” she repeats vacantly. The color drains from her face, and she sways as if a wind just tossed her. I step forward. “What-what the fuck is going on? Rose!” I shout, but she's already folding like a chair. I leap, catching her before she falls. Emotions tumble around inside me. “I'm sorry,” she mutters. No, I am. I’m so fucking sorry. Then she says a word that's so soft, I barely hear it. “Candy.” Her head rolls into my arm, that ghostly color infusing her normally warm-pink skin. What the fuck is this? * I hear the truck and throw myself at the door to the cabin. Rose isn't coming around. I need to get her to a hospital. Did I do this to her? Make her pass out because I was the ultimate cockbite? Snare takes the steps two at a time. His face lurches inside the door like a bird after a worm. “Where is she?” “Fuck that, let's grab her and get her to the hospital.” He grabs my arm, and I yank it away. “Fuck this, I don't want to talk. I want to move.” “Hang on. What happened?” “We had some fun; she passed out. That's it.” I jog to the couch and scoop up a lifeless Rose off the couch. My stomach clenches. The food I ate hours ago threatens to rise. Please be okay, baby. I smooth her hair away from her face. Snare looks down. “She doesn't look good, man.” “Ya think?” I bellow in his face. Snare pivots then moves out the door and opens the back of the pickup truck the club has, and we load her in the back. “I'll drive. You're halfway to fucked up, shouldn't be behind the wheel.” I sneer at him, and Snare ignores me, sliding into the driver's side. We rush to Kent Valley Medical. Fifteen minutes at seventy miles per hour seems to take hours. We rush to the ER, and they meet us there, taking Rose from my arms. “What's happened?” the nurse asks me. I stare back at her, feeling as if someone gagged me with a sock. “I don't know. We hooked up, had some fun…” I shrug. The nurse purses her lips, running her eyes over me in ten-second judgement. She immediately looks Rose over. Her eyes slam back to me. The fingerprints on Rose's throat are starting to bruise. Fuck. She thinks I did that. She backs away from me. “Fuck,” Snare says. Yes. Fuck. She jogs with Rose on a cart around a corner, and I follow. I don't struggle when the cops come and tear me away from a still-unconscious Rose. It's worth it to be with her until I can't be. 10 Rose Eyelids. Heavy. Can't open. My vision comes back in fuzzy pieces. The TV squawks softly. Low light pulses around me, and the beep of machinery pierces my hearing. Finally, I lift my eyelids then close them. I blink them open again. Loud snoring fills my ears. That jerks my eyes open all the way. A huge muscular man is slouched in the chair adjacent to my bed. I'm in a hospital. My mind whirs. What am I doing here? Memories rain down on me. Drake. The assault. Noose. The memory engulfs my body, zipping straight to my head. Noose’s body crawls over my mind, lighting a fire of need I never knew I had. His mouth on my sex. My mouth on him. Words exchanged. Distrust. Accusation. Then I black out. My head whips to this man in the chair. He’s not Noose. He's wearing a vest. Memories of Anna come fast. Cut. The vest is his cut. It says Road Kill MC. It's one of Noose’s biker friends. I shut my eyes, controlling my breathing. Where is Noose? What? I have a glucose dive, and he dumps me here with his buddy? I'm so miserable about my bad decision-making, I can't think. The buddy chooses to wake up at that moment. He sits up straight, fingers attacking his eyes, and as he rubs them to wakefulness. Bright-blue eyes stare back at me in a face with stern lines, high cheekbones, and a nasty scar. “Hey, Rose.” Does everyone know me? I cross my arms, look to my left, see the waiting fruit juice, and take a sip. “Who are you?” “Snare.” “Your real name?” I ask. He shrugs. “Road name's good enough for most.” “Uh-huh.” Road name my ass. I take a cleansing breath. “Where's Noose?” “Jail.” “What?” I yell, my sheet falling to reveal the beautiful hospital gown. He sits up straight, eyes to the door. “Chill, okay? Noose wanted me to look after you until he made bail. I can't do that with you flipping out and shit.” Flipping out and shit? My mouth drops open, catching-flies style. “Why is Noose in jail?” Do I want to know? “They saw your neck. Assumed shit, as usual.” His eyes rise to the ceiling, and my hand touches my sore neck. I let my fingers drop. “Noose thinks he hurt you,” Snare says in a low voice. “He didn't do this,” I say, indicating my healing throat. Snare pegs me with his brilliant-azure gaze. “Who did?” Not going there. “Somebody else.” His inky brows come together. “Uh-huh. Why don't you tell your friend Snare, and he'll take care of the little woman-beater problem you have.” No way. I'm not going in debt to some biker gang when I have another one literally gunning for me already. I shake my head, which makes me dizzy. “No.” He lifts his shoulders. “Got all day, girl. Waiting on Noose.” Whatever. “Will he-he be set free?” “Now that you're awake, you can say he didn't do that damage.” I nod. I might not want to take it farther with Noose. God, do I want to take it farther? But he's not going to hang for Drake. Nobody is. Ever again. Including Charlie. Shit. “Charlie,” I say in a stricken whisper. Snare leans forward. “Who?” My eyes slide to him. “Uh, my nephew.” My gaze shifts to the clock: straight-up noon. “Is it Saturday?” I ask. Snare nods. “Yup.” His eyes travel to my cell. “Phone's been blowing up with texts all morning.” A breath wheezes out of me, and I fall back against the pillow, groaning. I slide the cell across the little rolling tray and briefly scroll through my texts. My fingers stumble over the dummy text Noose sent, and my teeth click together. Great. I keep moving. Honey haven't heard from you. From Mom. Phone us back. Missed call from Dad. I can't get out of calling them back. I hit the little receiver symbol, and Dad picks up on the first ring. “Hey, Dad.” “Princess.” I feel guilt over the relief that fills his voice. Snare is paying careful attention. I put my forearm over my stomach and turn in the opposite direction. “Listen, I had an episode,” I say in a low voice. “Oh God. Where are you, Rose?” Dad’s voice is commanding, taking charge of the situation. “I'm at Kent Valley.” “You didn't have your protein.” I think of Noose's cum. I kind of had some protein. Oh God. I shut my eyes, wanting to crawl in a hole somewhere. “Yeah. I sort of forgot.” “ʻSort ofʼ doesn't cut it, Rose.” “My friend got me here.” “Some friend,” he huffs. You have no idea. “The hospital see your tattoo, honey?” Mom asks in the background. Dad's got the call on speaker. “Yes.” Their silence is touchable relief. “Good,” Dad says. “Charlie's fine. May be on a sugar high for a week.” The first smile of the day breaks across my face. “That's great, Dad. I'll be getting out of here soon and be right over.” “Take your time, Rose. Daddy and I don't want you pushing it. You know how weak you become after an episode—” “I'm fine. I've got a glucose drip, Mom.” I hear her sigh. “Okay. We'll see you soon?” I nod, realize she can't see me, then answer, “Yes.” “Love you, Rose,” Dad says, but I still hear the reprimand in his voice. I've been stupid. Lust crushed my IQ like a car crash. “Love you too, Dad.” I swipe the cell and pop it onto the tray. “Nice family,” Snare says. I glare at him. His smile fades. “What's your problem?” What's not my problem? The Road Kill MC doesn't know about Drake. They don't know that much. Noose has targeted me for God knows what reason. Pussy, he'd say. I suck in a shaky inhale. Right. Sex. Or maybe I'm just another sister destined to be used up by a biker. Not this girl. * “My problem is glucose,” I admit in a flat voice. Snare's eyebrows jerk up. “Yeah?” He slaps his jean-clad thighs. “They wouldn't tell me dick.” He shrugs. “Nurses weren't too thrilled to have my ass in here.” I can’t help but laugh. Snare's just as blunt as Noose. I study him. Maybe not. His cut says sergeant-at-arms, abbreviated. I guess there are roles to fill within the biker gangs. I'd never wanted to know too much when Anna was gushing about Drake in the beginning. In the end she wasn't gushing; Anna was hiding. I exhale in a rush, looking at my hands. Snare asks, “What's that mean? Glucose?” “I need to eat really regularly. Protein-based stuff.” My face heats. “If I get too low in my sugars, I can sort of noodle-out.” I look up, and his brows are together. The scar across his face ripples as he scrunches his nose. “I’ll pass out.” He snorts. “Scared the piss outta Noose.” Doubt that. Probably just wanted to get my ass out of there. But he did avert disaster. “I appreciate him taking me here.” I knot my hands together. Not knowing what to say. “He likes you.” I jerk my head toward him, shaking it softly. “No, he said, we're just—” Getting off. “Casual.” Snare grunts. “Uh-huh. Whatever you say.” I nod my head vigorously. “Yeah, I do.” “So what do you do now?” he asks, changing the subject “If my sugars are good, they'll release me.” “Seems simple.” I nod. “Usually.” Simple stops as Noose walks in, with a nurse at his heels. “Hey!” she says, nipping at him. I can't contain my smile. He whirls, and she bounces off his chest, stumbling backward. His muscular chest. He catches her arm, steadying her. “Relax, Nurse”—his eyes grab at her nametag—“Bethany.” Wide eyes glare up at him. “This girl is under my care. I need to assure her vitals are perfect.” A smile curls Noose's lips. “I can vouch for her vitals.” Oh. My. God. My face bursts into flames. Nurse Bethany turns to me. “I know him,” I say in a choked voice. Boy, do I. Noose turns to stare at me, and the blush I feel deepens. How could I ever think I could walk away from him? He's a force of nature. No tornado, erupting volcano, or tsunami could hold a candle to Noose. He leaves Nurse Bethany in a daze and walks toward my bedside, giving an almost imperceptible nod in Snare's direction. Noose leans against my bed and takes my hand. “How you feeling?” Now that you're here? Wet. I swallow. Not a good reply, Rose. “Better.” Nurse Bethany comes over, making a wide berth around Noose. I flip my palm over, and she sticks my finger. I wince, and Noose gives her a look of contained thunder. “I'm taking her sugars, not that it is any of your concern,” she tells him with a sniff. He looks at me. “Everything about Rose is my concern.” Oh God. The nurse huffs dismissively, finishes with my pulse and breathing, and jots some notes down after looking at what's gone into my body and what my heart's doing. “You look good.” “Yeah,” Noose agrees, eyes at half-mast. I shut my eyes so I don't have to look at Nurse Bethany's expression. “I'll have the doctor sign you out,” she says slowly as my face burns, “then you're free to go.” I pop open my eyes, feeling a sudden urgency to use the bathroom, run a comb through the rat's nest of my hair, and brush the rug off my teeth. “Okay,” I say. “I need to go to the bathroom.” Her eyes narrow on Noose and Snare. “Would you give this young woman a moment?” The men share a sheepish glance, and as they move toward the door, a relieved exhale slips out. Nurse Bethany watches the door swing closed and hands me a card. It has a domestic abuse hotline on it. My shame breathes to hot life again. “It's not like that. Noose hasn't hurt me.” “Noose?” she asks. Her disdain hangs between us. “He will.” Her footsteps ring as she charges out of my room. I finger the glossy card, wondering how my life slid into chaos in three days. Or maybe it's been headed that direction for a long time. 11 Noose Rose is quiet as we use the old pickup to get back to her little car at Scenic Park. She looks a little better. She took a drive-through shower at the hospital, and her color's back to normal. I hate how relieved I am. “I said some shit back there…” I shake my head. This relationship shit blows. Is this relationship shit? “Yeah,” Rose replies. We both start talking, and she holds up her hand. “I'm not saying I don't like you.” I whip my head in her direction. “Like me? Fuck!” I pound the steering wheel, and she flinches. “I think we've goddamned established the like part, Rose.” Her face dips, and I swear, this girl makes me feel like a dick without even trying. Unless I am one. That bit of self-realization bites. I ease into a parking slot, jamming the gearshift to park, and slide to face her. She looks so small and vulnerable sitting there. “I can't let you leave this truck without knowing what cocksucker tried to choke you.” Her eyes tighten, and her lips flatten. “Why? So you can go all gangsta on him and kill him?” What the fuck? I lean forward and growl the truth. “Maybe.” Images of killing knots shuffle through my mind like a deck of cards. She leans back against the door. “I don't want any more killing, Noose.” “Killing needs to be done sometimes. All the beautiful people want to believe that they're safe, but they're not. Nobody's safe, Rose.” A tear rolls out of her eye, she brushes it away, and another takes its place. My status in dickdom is now secure. “Fuck,” I mutter, tapping my fingers along the wheel. “She was only nineteen,” Rose says, stuttering through her tears, and I sharpen right up. Her angry eyes glare up at mine. But she's talking, and I keep my fat mouth shut for once. “She met some biker guy.” Her eyes accuse me. I finish the sentence for her, like you. I let that go too, but patience isn't my best trait. I can feel it thinning like skin over a drum. “He was dangerous. Had money. Showered Anna with the forbidden fruit type of stuff. She was in love.” I can tell by her tone of voice she thinks Anna didn't know about love yet. “Then he started getting mean. Violent.” This is where she really piques my interest. “One day, Anna never came home, and she wouldn't have left Charlie for anything. Even though by this time, she was smoking out with weed, lying to our parents—anything to be with Drake.” She says his name like a curse word. Rose bites her bottom lip, and an image of her mouth on my dick floats through my mind. I kill it ruthlessly. What kind of dick lets thoughts of sex run through his mind when a chick's in shambles? Uh-huh. I get back on point. “You think Drake killed Anna?” I know he did. I know more about him now than I want to. Her eyes land on mine, dark and fathomless. Eyes like Rose's could bring a man to his knees. Maybe they have. “I know he did.” I don't let her off the hook. “Did Drake do this?” I sweep my palm in the direction of the bruise necklace around her throat. She tries to look away. I move across the seat, cradling her face between my hands, forcing her to look in my eyes. “Tell me,” I command. Rose jerks her head in a nod, her chest heaving as she begins to sob. I pull her against me. Her fright beats like a rabbit in a cage against me. That fucker Diablo will not have her. No one will. But me. * Rose I can't believe I told him. Noose turns off the engine of the truck and slides out. He strides toward the door and opens my side. He holds out his hand, and I slip mine inside. The shower I took at the hospital didn't cut it, I need a hot bath. I need my own house—and some space. Charlie. Noose hauls me into his arms, and I slide down the front of him, burying my nose in him as I go. I could drown in his scent. I tip my head back, staring into his light eyes. “The police let you go.” He smirks. “I'm here, aren't I?” I laugh. “Yeah.” I shake my head. “I'm not so smart right now, Noose. My nephew's at my parents’, and the hearing is Tuesday. I'm scared and tired.” “Hey…” He brings my hand to his mouth and kisses each knuckle. “You've got protection now.” I pull my hand away. “I like you.” I back up. “No, you don't,” Noose says, stalking toward me. He stops. “You think after all the shit that's come down, I'd hurt you?” I don't. There's no way that a man who could worship my body the way he did could hurt me. Physically. I shake my head. “Well, thank fuck for that.” He rakes fingers through his hair. “Then what's the problem?” I open my mouth to tell him that I don't want biker protection. A biker killed Anna and got away with it. Then he's in front of me, and I can't speak because of his nearness. I'm rumpled, tired, and full of the sex we had. And I want more. I hate myself for it. I hate that I'm like Anna. Because she's gone now. She left Charlie and me. We needed her, and she left. Then Noose is kissing me as if he'll die if I don't kiss him back. So I do. I wrap my arms around his strong neck, and his hands go to my ass, easily lifting me in his arms. He turns with me and presses me against the side of the pickup. His erection divides me, splitting my sex like a ripe fruit. “I never brushed my teeth,” he whispers between kisses. “I want the taste of you on my tongue, between my teeth.” My pussy soaks my yoga pants, and I groan. Noose says everything he's thinking. I love it. I hate it. I kiss him back harder, wanting what he offers. Not the protection but that part of him that he gives me. Unguarded. Organic. Pure. Hard. Hot. Noose wins out, dry humping me against the side of a pickup truck in Scenic Hill. Then a noise brings us out of our lust-filled states. “I'll take it from here,” a voice says. I know that voice. Metal sparkles in the final light of day. A wrench hits Noose. His eyes go wide, and his hands convulsively tighten on me. He staggers back, dragging me with him. A mix of lust and horror rip across his features. I scream. But at the hour between four and five in the afternoon, no one's in the park to hear us. Noose falls backward, hitting the ground hard. He's dazed but attempting to stand. Blood runs in a thick line from his head. Drake moves toward Noose, and I don't think. I land on his back. “Later, baby,” he says in a leering voice. I bite his neck like a vampire on crack. He howls, throwing me off. But it gets him away from Noose, who's crawling toward the truck. I blast off, running for all I'm worth. Yay for glucose drips. The wind plays with my hair. Then a hand grips it, and I fly backward, spinning. A fist rises like a small asteroid coming toward me. It lands. Fireworks shatter my vision. Then blackness is the solace to my dilemma, making the tough decisions for me. THE END Read More Never miss a new release. Subscribe: MARATA EROS NEWS If you enjoyed NOOSE, please post your thoughts at your point of purchase and help another reader discover a new series. Thank you! Love Road Kill MC? Please read on for a sample of another Marata Eros work …. THE TOKEN A Token Series Novella Volume 1 New York Times Bestselling author MARATA EROS All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2013 Marata Eros This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to a legitimate retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. Marata Eros Website Marata Eros FB Fan Page Editing suggestions provided by Red Adept Editing Dedication: Autumn Tackett- Davis Thank you so much~ ~ Prologue ~ “You're dying,” Dr. Matthews says. Two words. Final. Complete. Desolate. I feel my fingers clench the armrests of the chair underneath me, but the rest of my body remains numb. If his words aren't enough to convince me, I see my silence is a prevailing annoyance in his day. Dr. Matthews walks stiffly, making his way to the softly glowing X-ray reader. I flinch when he slaps the photo of the soft tissue of my brain against the magnetic tabs of the lit surface. The light glows around the tumor, immortalizing the end of my life like an emblazoned tool of disregard. Just the facts, ma’am. I sway as I stand, gripping the solid oak of his desk. It's very large, an anchor in the middle of his prestigious office full of the affectations of his career. I walk toward Matthews. His hard face is edged by what might be sympathy. After all, it's not every day he tells a twenty-two-year-old woman she's got moments to live. Actually, I do have time—months. It's just not enough. I look at the mess that's my brain, at the damning half a golf ball buried in a spot that will make me a vegetable if they operate. My eyes slide to the name at the bottom. For a split second, I hope to see another name there. But my own greets me. Mitchell, Faren. I back up and Matthews reaches to steady me. But it's too late. I spin and run out of his office as his voice calls after me. The corners of my coat sail behind me as I slap the metal hospital door open and take the cement steps two at a time. I see my car parked across the street and race to it. My escape, my despair, is a thundering initiative I can't deny. I miss the hit as if it happens to someone else. Only the noise permeates my senses as light flashes in my peripheral vision, mirrors against sunlight. I tumble in a slow spin of limbs. My body heaves and rolls, hitting the asphalt with a breath-stealing slap. I lie against the rough black road. My lungs beg for air, burning for oxygen, and finally I take a sucking inhale that tears through my lungs. The wet road feels cool against my face as I watch someone come into my line of sight. My body burns and my head aches. My arm is a slim exclamation point from my body, my fingers twitching. I can't make them stop. I can't make anything stop. Powerless. The doctor is too late with his condemning words. I've already died. I know this because the man who approaches is an angel. A helmet comes off hair so deep auburn it's a low-burning lick of flame. He swims toward me like a mirage, walking in a surreal slow motion. I blink, and my vision blurs. I try to raise my arm to wipe my eyes and whimper when it disobeys my command. My angel crouches down, his eyes a deep brown, belying the dark bronze of his hair. “Shhh... I got you.” His voice is a deep melody. I sigh. Safe. I try to focus on him but the helmet he parks next to his boots becomes three as my vision triples. There's a scuffle and I try to move to see what all the commotion's about. The angel wraps his warm large hand around my smaller one and smiles. “It's going to be okay.” That's when I know I'm not in heaven. That's what people say when nothing is okay. ~ 1 ~ One month prior I flex my hand, grab my isometric handgrip, and do my hundred reps. So fun—a little like flossing my teeth. I put on the kettle with my good hand and turn the burner on high. Flex, squeeze, release, flex again. I get to a hundred and switch hands. As I go through my daily ritual, I flip open my Mac and browse my emails. Faren, can you cover my shift? Faren, can you come in a half hour early? Faren, can you bring the main dish for the office pot luck? Delete, delete, delete. I'll say yes because it's hard for me to say no. Tough lessons in life have taught me that. I put my handgrip on the corner of the end table, glancing at my left pinky and frowning. It's almost straight. Almost. No one can tell unless they're looking for it. No one ever looks that hard. Humanity glosses over shit. I leave my laptop open and walk back to the stove. Depression-era jadeite salt and pepper shakers stand dead in the middle of a 1950s pink stove. The combo reminds me of an Easter egg. The kettle insists it's ready, bleating like a sheep. I lift it carefully, deliberately, using all the muscles of my hands as I've been taught. As I teach others to do. I pour the hot water over the tea bag and sigh, forcing my bad hand to thread through the loop of the tea cup handle. My dexterity is returning. I've pushed myself so hard that my hand rebels, willfully abandoning its hold on the cup. The porcelain shatters, and shards fly on the wood floor of my tiny apartment above the main street where I live in deep anonymity. The pieces splinter in all directions, and I sigh. I want to chop off my hand. I want to cradle it against my chest because it still works. Just not perfectly. Like my life. * “Another headache?” Sue asks. I nod, my hands falling away from my temples as I reach for my patient folder. I grip it with both hands and scan who's up first. Bryce Collins. Pain. In. My. Ass. I grin. I love the tough nuts to crack. They make it all worth it. I stride to my torture chamber, pushing the door open with my hip and search through the sea of work out equipment and hand held physical therapy implements to meet the sullen gaze of a seventeen-year old athletic prodigy. A prodigy with a chip on his shoulder so wide I could drive a truck through it. Well I have my own dings and dents. We can compare later. Right now, it's all about the work. “Hi, Bryce.” He mumbles a reply as I hand him the first merciless task. The huge rubber band fits around the pole in the center of the room. Mirrors line the wall and toss back our struggles. And our triumphs. I watch as he half-heartedly goes through the motions of his straight leg kicks. When he reaches twenty I scoop my hand down and latch onto his hamstring and he groans at my touch. “Bend your knee a little,” he does while giving me a look that could kill. I stare neutrally back until his gaze drops and he finally digs in. An hour later, shaking and sweating, Bryce's huge and muscled body lumbers outside my door. He pauses as he opens it, looking at me with pissed off brown eyes. “I hate you, Miss Mitchell,” he says and means it. I smile back. I totally get it. Bryce needs to hate me to get better. It beats hating himself. I nod. “I know.” He walks out, and I run my finger down the patient appointments for the day. Kiki makes her loud entrance, and my lips twist. She balances chai tea in both hands, staggering in too-tall heels that sink into the nearly bald carpet. “Gawd!” she huffs as she winds her way through the ellipticals, weight machines, and treadmills. She leans against the walking bars that run like railroad tracks for those with dual injuries. Like both legs not working. I swallow and force my smile back in place. “Take your tea, you ungrateful bitch,” she squeals, handing me my tea. I blow on it. A touch of honey and ginger rise through the vapor, and I grin over the rim of the cup as I sip through the little slot. “So?” I ask in a purr. Kiki is pure drama. It's only Monday, so we have the entire week to build up to a crescendo. Mondays are usually sedate, so I brace myself. I have thirty minutes until my next client arrives to be tortured into wellness. Kiki smirks, sets down her tea, and moves to the pole. I give a furtive glance around the gym, hoping no one comes in. “Got a…” She wraps around the pole and slides down it seductively, letting her butt cheeks split as she wiggles and bounces at the bottom. She springs up, the front of her hoohah a hairsbreadth from the cool metal. “Ginormous tip this weekend from a richie!” She thrusts forward, wrapping one slender leg around the pole, and I groan. She does a little mock-hump against it and grins at me. Kiki is so inappropriate I could die. But she's my drug and I'm hers. We fit together because we're so different. She's an exotic dancer who's also a senior at Northwestern State. She makes great money, and she also does serious gym time, packing in an hour six days a week. It's important to not look too striated, Kiki claims. No “guy-look.” Just tits, ass, and curves with definition. I designed the workout for her because I’m intimately familiar with the human body. I didn't set out to be, but life had other plans. The sins of the past become the direction of our future. Kiki pouts, leaves the pole, and saunters toward me. “You're no fun.” I roll my eyes. “Okay... I know I've got to ask the burning question or we'll get nowhere.” She perks up. “You got it, sister.” “Who was it?” Kiki always takes stock of clients. Men think they know so much, but women could rule the world if we came together. I sigh. Kiki notices regulars, high tippers, newcomers and flags the creeps. She's scary uncanny. I came to watch a set at the prestigious strip club, Black Rose, and went away shocked. Shocked by the clientele, shocked that Kiki could dance that well for such a short time, and shocked by the moolah. “The owner,” Kiki whispers as if we have a secret. I shrug. “So?” “It's Jared-effing-McKenna, baby!” Kiki is offended by my deliberate ignorance. Her brows rise to her hairline, and her dark eyes are wide with clear disdain. Mine are steady with indifference. The wheels of my memory spin. Oh yes. Jared McKenna. The Jared McKenna. Greek god. Adonis incarnate. Hercules. Playboy, womanizer, money mogul. I slowly nod. Let's add “strip club owner” to the repertoire. I remember the detail of why he has so much money and want to forget as soon as I do. Kiki pouts and tears off the lid of her tea. “Anywho... he was with someone, and his pal tipped me big time.” She sips her cooling tea, gazing at me with “cat that ate the canary” eyes. “Okay, the foreplay is killing me. How much?” I take a small slurp of tea, and she tells me. The tea sprays out of my mouth, and Kiki grins at my klutzy-ass move. “Five hundred dollars!?” I choke some more, and tea dribbles down my chin. “It's okay, baby... it is a mind-blower. I mean,” her hands go to her ample chest in patent disbelief, “my nipples got hard and he didn't even touch me,” she says sincerely and I burst out laughing. My headache is gone for the moment, my Monday morning lethargy lifting. Five hundred bucks is an assload of cash, especially for one night of dancing half naked. It's more than I take home every week. Just one tip. My schooling is done, my career path set partly because of circumstance. Kiki is high on drama, but doesn't always say things without a purpose and I narrow my eyes at her. “Spill it,” I demand. Kiki's lips twitch and she chucks her empty cup in the trash. “This type of gig could be the thing to get you out of that dump in downtown.” I scowl. I like my downtown dump. “Faren!” she wails. I shush her before Sue comes in thinking someone died. Of course, with all the sounds of torment she's heard since I began working here last year, nothing should faze her. Kiki relents and switches to a softer tone. “You could own something. Something nice.” I know this. I've been to her condo overlooking Pike Place and Puget Sound. Her view of downtown is magnificent. And expensive. It had to set her back five hundred K. I rent my death trap for nine hundred per month, and it's a studio in one of the tortuously small cobblestone-lined alleys of Seattle. At least it's on the fifth floor. The stairs are murder, but if I want two windows that actually face outside, that's what I can afford. Sometimes the freight elevator works; otherwise, it's exercise. The location allows me to walk to my upper-scale rehabilitation clinic. No need to use my beater car. That much. “You don't have to give this up,” Kiki says quietly. She knows I won't budge on that, and she of all people knows why. Rehab’s not a well-paying profession. But there's more than money, sometimes the soul needs edification. I look at what Kiki has and what I don't. I shove those thoughts away. She's my best friend. She's seen me through everything. Dark shadows press in, and my headache returns with a throbbing vengeance. Kiki frowns. “Another headache?” “Yeah.” “I don't want to argue, Faren. You've got to know that.” Her root beer eyes peg me to the spot. The sweep of her dark hair lays like chocolate silk past her full breasts. “But with your looks”—she throws her manicured hands in the air—“you could shake your booty a little and work a side job. Get a place in your same area... you could own something.” It's an old argument. Her penthouse is nearly paid for while mine's a rental with a landlord that cares more about the rent than maintenance. Her eyes swim with knowledge, and I set down my tea. It's too cold to drink anyway. Her words put the last nail in the coffin of my resistance. “Something secure,” she adds in a whisper and I let her hug me. I cling to her and try to believe my financial troubles and dark secret can be erased by taking off my clothes for strangers Kiki loves me more than I love myself. She loves me enough for us both. * Sue glances up when I click off the light off. The sky is darkening as I slide my last patient folder through the glass partition. She has that look in her eyes and pushes a business card through the slot. It bears a doctor's name: Dr. Clive Matthews. I give Sue a sharp look, and she shrugs, giving my hand a maternal pat. My eyes burn with tears from the spontaneous gesture. Sue notices my emotional struggle and ignores it. “He got rid of my migraines. Miracle worker, I say.” She nods and glances at the card significantly. I notice the appointment time and sigh. Sue doesn’t drop her gaze. “How much longer are you going to struggle through those bone crushers?” I don't answer, and she nods in her knowing way. “That's what I thought, Miss Mitchell. You'd have just come in suffering worse than your own patients.” Sue’s right. She knows it, and I do too. I take the card and stuff it in the pocket of my smock, Dr. Seuss cats cover it in a smear of red and blue. “Thanks,” I say grudgingly while I grab my coat. “Welcome,” she shoots back in triumph as I hear the door whisper closed behind me. I look at the card again as the cars, people, and city noise encapsulate me in the comforting rhythm of downtown. The smell of fish, food, and sea mingle, and I begin the short trek to the dank alley with the entrance to my apartment. I have two weeks to prepare myself to go back into a hospital. I hate hospitals. They're all about death. The thought of returning is almost enough to get a proper panic attack going. Almost. ~2~ I tenderly brush the hair off her forehead, though she doesn't feel it. She never knows when I'm with her. The rain coats the window, distorting the outside world and making this room a bubble of reality. The space is dim. That's a must, since too much light causes her to thrash. On some level, she rebels. It's my deepest regret that her rebellion couldn't have been sooner, when it could have saved her. It's a good day when I don't cry when I visit. Today my eyes are dry but the next time they might not be. I squeeze her hand, speaking softly. I lean forward to press a kiss on the tissue-thin skin of her forehead. It's translucent, the body inside, still and soft from lack of movement. Life. My mother lives but not as she should. I rise like I have hundreds of times and move to the door of the clinic that takes care of catatonic, high-needs patients. I have a new job. I do cry then. No one notices my tears anymore. They're used to them, and I don't bother to see their sympathy. I have a date with Kiki. * Kiki swivels in front of her makeup table and smirks at me. My trench coat drips water onto the floor. “Gawd!” Her full lips pout as she swipes another layer of sparkly crap on her lips. “You look like a drowned rat.” Her face softens. “See your mom?” I nod. Kiki knows it always sucker punches me to visit. It kills me not to. I face the evil I can bear. “Well, let's get you in the slut suit, baby.” Kiki moves through the hanging costumes until she gets to my size, and she frowns slightly. “I don't know how I'm going to stuff that gazelle body in the average getup.” She taps her nail against her glossy lip and scowls when some of her handiwork comes off. “Damn,” she swears softly, making the hangers move with an angry swish of her hand. “No.” A blue outfit sails to the end of the size eight rack. “No.” A glossy green spandex number with a painful looking strip of butt floss floats past. Her eyes narrow to slits as a beige '20s flapper-style dress with cut outs at the nipples appears. “Fuck no!” I laugh, and Kiki glares at me. “It's not funny, bunny. You need to look spanktastic this first time out of the gate.” She's so serious I giggle again. “I'm not a damn horse!” I hold my sides as laughter peels out of me, and I feel closer to normal. I'm so grateful for the levity she brings that I don't know what to say. Even if I'm about to strip down to nothing in a roomful of strangers, Kiki makes it better. She finally grins as her eyes light on something red. I mouth no, and she says, “Hell yes!” She tears it off the rod. I don't think it's a real outfit. Actually, it’s more air than cloth. “I can't wear that!” I stutter, backing away as if it's the plague instead of a skimpy costume. Kiki's brows come together in an adorable frown. “Ah... we had this discussion dollface. You won't be wearing this for long.” Those perfect brows rise and I blow out a frustrated huff. Right. No clothes. Well, this is a “classy” club, so only titties. No frontal nudity down there. They can't touch, and I have to wear stockings for some reason. City ordinance. So basically my butt and boobs will be bare to the world, but somehow that's okay because a small triangle of cloth will cover my front and some super-sheer stockings will encase my legs. Yeah. Kiki pats the stool in front of a huge mirror, lit all around its square perimeter with Hollywood bulbs. Big ones. They glare at my pinched and pale face. Her mocha arm comes around my front and she begins to scoop and fix my hair. It is neither blonde or brown, but a rich honey color. It's never been dyed or bleached. I just didn't want any more attention when I was at home. My idea of girly-ness is wearing a pair of high heels, tight jeans, and a top with sleeve cut-outs. I watch, mesmerized, as Kiki hikes my thick hair into a loose topknot, anchoring it with about a hundred bobby pins. She pulls a few tendrils loose to cascade halfway down my back. No matter what anyone says, long hair is easier than short. However, Kiki convinced me to take off five inches before I met with the manager a few days ago. So far, meeting Ty has been the creepiest part. I remember exactly how he'd looked at me. It was eyeball rape. “Hi, Faren,” Ty said, shaking my hand. His large dark hand engulfed my smaller one. I’m surprised. I have long fingers that match my height. My hand never feels swallowed by a man's. “Hi,” I said. His eyebrows rose, and he spread his arms as he stepped back. “Kiki told me you know what to expect.” I did. I felt like crying, but I took off my clothes. The heat of my embarrassment crawled across my skin. My skirt pooled at my feet. My high heels and thigh highs don’t impede its crumpled slither down my legs. Next, I unbutton the scarlet blouse Kiki had picked out, revealing an inky bra and panty set. The bra is demi-cupped and holds my full Cs high and tight, my pink nipples hidden by a strategic strip of ebony satin. I made the mistake of looking at Ty. He licked his lips, his hooded eyes roving my body like a starving man. My palms begin to sweat. “Turn,” he said quietly, and I do. He'd been looking at my bare ass, only a strip of lace bisecting my butt cheeks. I felt the heat climb higher, infusing my neck to the roots of my hair. I count inside my head, praying for it to end. “Walk,” he said. I do, knowing I'm naturally graceful and balanced. The deep lace of my stockings whispers as I move away from him. Grace is the one thing that has never been taken from me, and I'm grateful for it now. “Turn,” he said. I don't miss that his voice is somewhat hoarse. I pivoted in a smooth motion, and I can't help but notice I've affected him. Shame flares anew, riding high to mortified. “Walk.” I inhaled deeply and draw nearer. I stop about three feet from him, and we stare at each other. I'm so tense I could've screamed. “You'll do,” Ty said in a sarcastic drawl. I looked into his dark eyes and see desire there. I swallowed so hard my throat clicks. Silence fills the space uncomfortably. “So when can I start?” I hate how timid my voice sounds. Ty smirked as though he understands how desperate I am. I know Kiki didn't tell him my reasons. He assumed a lot. It must come with the job. “Tomorrow.” “Okay.” With shaky fingers, I'd put on my clothes, fighting tears so hard that my eyelids burned with the need to cry. My mind filled with all my defenses. I'm a respectable girl. I pay my bills. I don't party, have boyfriends, goof off... I'm a physical therapist, for God's sake! But when I get the last button done, the words die. Ty sees me as commerce, and I sighed, feeling defeated. I can't even make the proper ending salutation. I made my silent way to the door and almost escape before he'd asked “Have you ever had sex?” I turned slowly, my heart hammering. What kind of effed up question is that? I gathered my courage, knowing I could lose this chance to clean up my fiscal problems with the wrong words. “That's none of your business.” I'd hated myself, but I had to ask anyway, “Why? Why does that matter?” Ty walked around his desk and shifted papers, his interest in me clearly waning. He'd been silent so long I opened the door and began to walk through it. His words caught me before I closed it, “Because you walk like a whore.” I stiffened. The tears that threatened earlier? Yeah... those fall. I had softly closed the door and moved through the crowded, dark hallways of the strip club. My coat is secured around the outfit that'd cost me almost a week's pay. I hated what Ty said. I hated it because it felt true. Kiki shatters the foul memory of meeting Ty when she asks, “You ready?” I look back at the girl in the mirror that's me. Her eyes are so pale a gray they would look almost white if it weren't for the lightning strikes of bronze that streak the irises, a warm brown ringing the outside. Right now, they're wide and ghostly in my even paler face and Kiki stares back at me in the mirror. Her darker skin and complexion contrasts with mine in the reflection. She draws me in as I lean back against her. “You don't have to, Faren.” She gives me an out as I stare at her dark arms wound around my neck in an embrace of solace. But we both know why I have to. I nod. “Yeah I do.” She kisses my coiffed hair and backs up. I slip into the ruby red heels and try not to take that final glance in the mirror. A tall slim girl stares back at me. Her hair looks like caramel, eyes like ice. Her creamy skin looks like milk against the deep red of the outfit. A glittering mask that is part of the act. It surrounds my silver eyes in secrecy. I'm glad for the anonymity. The glittering v between my full breasts needs only an inch to reveal my nipples. The waistband is Velcro. Meant to be torn. Kiki does a little spin, hump-hips, and throws her head back, keeping a death grip on the doorjamb. “Every time you come down the pole, 'kay?” I nod as the music begins for my set. “Use your good hand, hon,” she reminds me. There's no way I could use the bad one. It'll be the wrist for balance and faking using both. I don't fall apart until it's over. Then I'm at the commode throwing up my meager lunch. I don't notice anyone watch as I race out of the club. ~ 3 ~ The hundreds fan out like a deck of perfect cards, and I move as though I'm in a dream. I scoop them up from Ty’s desk, and he stays my hand by wrapping my wrist with his large hand. My eyes skitter up to his, and I blink. “What?” I feel filthy every time I'm near him. He seems to know it by some pervert instinct and capitalizes on it by treating me like dirt whenever our paths cross. I’d tried to tell Kiki, and she flung her hands up dismissively. “No touchie!” she said and sashayed off. It's easy for her to say because he doesn’t watch her. But he touches me now. It's easy for her to say because I don't see him watch her. He tightens his hold to just shy of bruising, and I fight my natural urge to pull away. Ty has a hold of my bad hand, and anything can happen. As it is, my heart tries to escape my chest. I can't stand for a man to touch me. Every time it has happened in the past, it ended one way. His eyes linger on mine then scan to where my coat is cinched at my waist. “There's more where that came from.” His eyes hold some kind of question I don't understand. I don't want to. I ignore the overt innuendo. “Let me go.” All I want to do is whimper like a scared little girl. Because I am. I’m so scared. I've been doing this job for a week. The money I hold is enough to pay for half of my mom's care for the month. The entire month. It sits in my bad hand. My pinky finger pokes straight out, unable to bend correctly, and sweat dampens the dirty money. “No,” he says He squeezes imperceptibly harder, and a low sound of pain escapes my throat. He smiles, and I realize he's a predator. Like my stepfather. The saliva in my mouth disappears as my breathing picks up. The door opens, and he drops my hand as if it burns. The money floats to the floor because my hand can't hold it. Ty says loud enough for whoever walks in to hear, “You're such a graceful dancer, but you can't hang onto your money.” He chuckles at his joke. I don't think it's funny. I scoop up the money with my good hand, and the bad one throbs where it's been held too hard. Too long. I know from experience it won't work well for a solid hour. “Hey, boss.” Ty sounds nervous, and that makes my heart lighter. “What's happening here?” a man asks, his voice a deep rumble. Melodic. It vibrates through my body though my bare knees are planted on the plush carpet. My bones thrum with it as though it’s a tune that sings without permission inside the recesses of my soul. I don't lift my face. I don't want anyone to witness my misery as I stuff the bills in my purse. I begin to rise as a large hand cups my elbow. Warmth leeches through my thin coat and flows through my body from his touch. I gaze at the beautiful leather shoes that shine in the soft light. My eyes rise to his wrist. Vintage cuff links wink back, a sapphire the only witness to my insecurity. My desperate need for indifference. However fleeting, however untouchable. I turn without offering thanks or a reply. His hand releases me, and I grow cold from its absence. I nearly run from the office, but I hear Ty comment about how strange I am, how all dancers are. The only reply I hear before that burning gaze leaves my back is, “Shut up, Ty.” The door clicks and I leave as quickly as I came. The heat from that stare follows me. * Kiki's curls dance as she moves her head to the music in her ear buds. She looks like a duck, her head jutting and retracting to some awesomeness only she can hear. Her long nail scrolls down the screen of her cell. I plop down across from her and heave a sigh of relief. I heft my bag across my legs and against the corner of the seat of my favorite diner. I don't branch out much. So sue me, I love the view. That's a bit of the reason why I live where I do, why I shell out nine hundred bucks a month on a studio dive. Well, that and Mom's terribly expensive care center is blocks away, like my job. Both jobs, actually. Kiki catches my eye and smiles big, her grin infectious. I smile back. She pops an earbud out, and I hear the singer, Sully Erna. Hottie. I feel heat fill out the cool paleness of my skin. Kiki lights up at my expression, never one to lose out on an easy excuse to tease me. “Sully Erna's coming to town. Saw him when he was touring with Godsmack. He's dee-lish, baby!” Kiki gives a little hip gyration on the seat as the waitress comes up, pen poised. She looks at Kiki with clear amusement and gives me a knowing smile. The that girl can't be contained look passes between us before we look back at Kiki. “What?” she asks, laughing. Her hand sails out dramatically, her tips bright red this month because Christmas is coming. God knows, she can't not celebrate something. I look at my own bitten fingernails and put my elegant hands with their stubby tips on my lap. Arlene takes our order and saunters away, no doubt chalking up our goofiness to our age. I'm not goofy, but it's part of her charm I siphon. “So tell me what's going down, girl,” she says without preamble. Now that she's here I don't know if I can say it all. My hands sweat, and I fight to keep them on my lap. Arlene comes over and slaps two waters on the table. Her eyes flick to mine briefly, see something that makes her pause, but she must think better about getting involved because she leaves us to our conversation. Kiki knows I owe money for my mom's care. I take a deep breath then another. I meet her eyes. “It's fifty K, Kiki.” Her eyes bug comically, and her hand flies to her chest. “Jeee-sus! Faren...” she exhales in a contrite burst. We stare at each other while Arlene delivers our coffees. She looks from Kiki to me, probably wondering what stole my friend's good cheer. One guess. She leaves and Kiki leans forward, her hair sweeping in a black veil that brushes dangerously close to the steaming coffee. I calmly add cream and sugar, making it something that's not coffee anymore. She searches my face for the Swiss cheese of emotions leaking out and I nod. “Yeah, it's that bad,” I say. She gives a low moan of outrage. “That bad? So fucking bad!” Kiki hisses. “No wonder you finally caved about shaking your tail.” My shoulders slump a little at her words. An image of Ty's hand on my wrist like a vise bubbles up. I let it pop inside my mind, hoping it'll evaporate and knowing it won't. “How long will it take me to work off that debt?” Kiki's face smoothed out, her thinking face set into motion and I can tell she's adding stuff up. “Well... to be honest, most good nights you can make up to five hundred...” We're doing the math, and I'm hearing years. My soul can't take it. The pole and the men... it's already eating at me. Then there's Ty. I want months. Hell, weeks. A moment around him is a lifetime. Kiki reads my face and sighs. She lowers her eyes and stirs her coffee. “I wasn't going to tell you, but there’s another option. It's kinda risky. It's not like the Black Rose.” “What could be worse than dancing at the Black Rose?” Kiki sighs. “Listen, BR is the classiest of these types of establishments. The men have to behave themselves, not touch the girls and you don't have to show your kitty.” I'm so grateful. I give her an exaggerated eye roll. “What about Ty? He's like some kind of pimp!” Kiki rolls her big eyes, her false eyelashes nearly reaching her brows. “Ty is Ty. He's great at sniffing out innocent girls, and he thinks you're skittish. He wants to scare you a little. No big thing.” Her eyes meet mine. “Listen, he's all bark. Don't let him spook you.” Right. I feel I'm a good judge of bark versus bite, but I say nothing. The food comes, and I look at the chef's salad with fresh salmon and wonder if I can eat it. My stomach's in knots. I feel the beginning of a fresh headache come on. I rub my temple before taking a small bite. Kiki grabs a greasy fry and swirls it in some ketchup while taking a sip of Coke. No burger. She lives on about a thousand calories per day. I don't know how she stays alive, but she explains that she's not doing drugs to stay thin like the other girls. The whole scene makes me want to cry. Then I go visit Mom and go right back to the pole anyway. Kiki dips another fry and meets my eyes. It hangs there like a limp noodle, dripping ketchup that reminds me of blood. I swallow. “How long?” She stares at me for a heartbeat then beheads the fry. She talks through the food, “What are you willing to do?” Oh gawd... Nothing more. Instead, I say, “A lot.” She nods, gives a sad little shake of her head, and tells me. There's a cavernous silence as the last word drops out of her mouth. I know she hates herself for telling me. I know she loves me more. Read More Token volumes 1-3, currently FREE for a limited time! ***Please read on …. Mature themes/18+ Audience for the following: Extreme violence Profanity Sexuality Might contain triggers. REAPERS A Druid Series Novella Volume 1 New York Times Bestselling author MARATA EROS All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2011 Marata Eros This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to a legitimate retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. Marata Eros Website Marata Eros FB Fan Page Edited by Hazel Novak Synopsis The vampires are a dying race, their females sterile. When it's discovered that human females of Druid ancestry can be viable breeders... the harvest begins. Rachel Collins is a young woman living in the frozen north of Alaska in a dead-end job with a circular life. She yearns for something more. When murders begin taking place in the city where she lives, she and her girlfriend try to be more cautious, only to be caught in the middle of a dangerous situation in which an unlikely savior emerges. Can Rachel escape her destiny while two different factions hunt her? CHAPTER ONE I looked at the clock, yet again... and knew that if my boss caught me I'd be toast. Safe in my cubicle, I swung my gaze away from the dreaded time and looked for Michelle. She'd be hanging by the cooler, which she was. Michelle caught me looking and lifted her chin up in greeting and grinned. She knew what I was about. It was all about getting out of here and doing something for ourselves. It had been a Long-Damn-Week and I was going to let my hair down and have some fun. Michelle wrapped up her conversation with one of the petty chicks that lounged all day while we picked up the slack. As Michelle walked toward me, I thought that maybe we wouldn't have to change: pencil skirts, thigh high stockings, stacked heels and blouses that yoked just where they should be to look sexy, nothing too much. Michelle stood in front of me, tapping a foot. “Watching the time won't help it go faster.” “Yes, I know, but I feel like the day should have ended already.” “I've got an idea, let's go to Spinners tonight,” she nearly squealed in delight. I wasn't feelin' the love on that place. It was always packed with a rough crowd and you had to beat the guys off with a bat. Michelle saw my expression and started to wheedle immediately, “Listen, give it a half hour and if it's super-lame, we'll just bail and go somewhere else. Like that brewery place... what's it's name?” “Talbot's,” I replied absently. She snapped her fingers. “That's it!” “Listen,” she leaned forward and our hair mingled together, “that new gal... with the red hair...” “Molly?” I said, automatically looking around for her. “Yeah,” she waved her hand, dismissing the name. “She was talking about that piece of creepy news that's been circulating today.” I looked at her blankly. “Oh for shit's sake, Rachel! Don't you pay attention to anything?” “Not really,” I said noncommittally. My life was beyond boring right now. I worked here, hung out with Michelle, worked out, read, fed my cat. I was dying for some Excitement. Dying. But the news wasn't going to deliver. Excitement... no way. “You're hopeless! Anyway,” she sounded the syllables out slowly, “there's been another killing. Another bleed-out.” That got my attention. It had been almost a month since the first murder and they still hadn't found the killer. Then there were the rapes. Somehow, it was all connected. Men were killed and drained dry of their blood and if there were women with them, they were raped. But none of the women could remember the attack or their attacker. Our gazes locked. “So... they found another body. Two, actually.” Michelle said ominously, waggling two fingers. Great. Just when I thought we could flounce around for the weekend. Talk about a wet blanket. “Maybe... we shouldn't go to Spinners then. I mean, if it's not safe.” “Eff-that, you're going! I just wanted to spread the gory gossip.” “That's kinda sick, you know.” Michelle nodded vigorously, she knew. I sighed. There was no getting out of it once Michelle had her mind set. And, in my soul... if I didn't get a break from this job and do something out-of-body, I'd scream. “I gotcha talked right into it, don't I?” Her eyes sparkled. “I guess but, we need to be careful, especially now,” I said in a conspirator’s whisper. “Hell, I'm more worried about the regular guys.” “Were the women... you know, was there blood... there?” I asked. She spun back around, her skirt twirling a little with the motion. “That's the major weird thing, they had all been bitten, but still had their blood. Only a pint gone.” Well, wasn't that just comforting. Michelle winked as she sauntered off, hips swaying. “Pick ya up at seven sharp.” She didn't wait for me to respond. Michelle knew she had me, hook, line and sinker. I gathered up all my stuff, slipped my heels back on my feet and headed for the door. Unfortunately, my dragon lady of a boss was blocking my way. “Miss Collins, I see you're ready to leave.” She looked at her behemoth of a wristwatch. “Two minutes after five.” She raised a humongous unibrow at me and I stifled a giggle. It was hard to be pissed at her when she looked so ridiculous. Almost. “Yes. That's traditionally when the work day ends for us here, Ms. Hogan,” I replied, thinking with mild irritation that Hogan had me by the short hairs. She knew I needed the job, she couldn't lambast me for leaving when the work day was through, technically. But... she liked to make me feel diminished for leaving so close to the chiming of the clock. Hogan looked me over from head to toe, taking in my long black hair, so deep a black it had blue highlights in the right light. My eyes were a pale blue, I was shapely but not skinny, and on the tall side. I didn't consider myself a hot number but I held my own. Hogan, on the other hand looked like she was always trolling for a new bridge. I had discreetly pressed my elbow into the elevator button and it dinged just as she opened her mouth to mention something else equally unimportant, her jowls swinging as she popped her mouth open then closed it again. I felt my escape portal open at my back and walked backwards into its gaping mouth, never more glad to be out of mortar range of the enraged cow, aka my boss. She glowered at me, starting to waddle forward and I blurted out, “Have a great weekend!” The door swept closed in front of me. I did a mental forehead-wipe. Thank God I was out of there. As the elevator descended I prepared myself for the onslaught of cold weather, my car would need at least five minutes to heat up. The days were long here in the north and heating my car in the underground parking garage was just part of what we did in Alaska. The elevator doors hissed apart and the cold air swept into the tight space, momentarily stealing my breath. I huddled my full length coat around myself, silently wishing the car was already warm. I rushed out of the elevator's cocoon of heat, my heels making clicking sounds on the concrete as I made my way to my car. If you could call it that. As I approached I knew my car stood out, it was a Smart Car and Michelle liked to tease and say it was a toaster that I drove, not a real car. I smiled, she had me there. I fumbled with my keys, finally yanking my glove off with my teeth, groaning as the cold air assaulted my fingertips, making them instantly numb. “Hey, Rachel,” I dropped my keys on the ground, spinning, my hand to my heart. It was Erik, a guy from work. My shoulders slumped in relief. He scared the shit out of me. “Scare you?” he smiled. I smiled back tentatively. He had really been pursuing me and I wasn't that interested. I couldn't put my finger on it exactly but there was just something off about him. Erik approached me and I stiffened a little, but he bent over, jerking the keys off the ground and put a finger through the loop of my key fob and hung them off his finger in front of my nose. I tried to snatch them and he yanked them just out of reach. “Meet me for dinner,” he stated, his eyes steady on my face, disconcerting. “Ah... Michelle and I are going out tonight,” I said, trying to distract him. “Rain check?” he pressed, never stopping his eye contact. I was starting to get nervous. Damn. I resisted the supreme urge to look around, seeing if there was anyone else. But there wasn't, I could feel the absence of others. I sure wasn't short on woman’s intuition. Just another creepy service we offer, I thought, getting the heebie-jeebies. I closed my coat tighter around me and his eyes tracked the movement, a smile spreading on his face. “I'll let you go, I know you have plans.” But his face told another tale. I didn't think he'd forget my rebuff anytime soon. I held my hands out and I was happy to notice that they weren't shaking. He'd really put me in a creeped out mood and I wasn't happy about it. He dropped the keys into my cupped hands and smiled again, tipping an imaginary hat. I turned after his back was to me and stabbed the key into the lock, opening the door in one movement I slid behind the wheel, slapping the flat of my palm on the lock after it closed. I heard the simultaneous click in the silence of the car and let the breath out I didn't realize I'd been holding. Holy-hell. I turned on the car and stewed for the five minutes, all the while wishing I could have driven off. That encounter with Erik had put a bad taste in my mouth. Like diet pop, but somehow worse. I pulled out of the bowels of the building, the night as black as when the day started. I entered traffic and began the drive to my condo, almost in the heart of downtown. I couldn't wait to be home. I threw my lights on, and glancing right then left I was so startled that I almost let my foot off the brake into opposing traffic. Erik sat behind the wheel of his car. He'd having sat there the entire time... waiting for me. I gunned it at the first hole in traffic that appeared. What a whacko! I'd have to tell Michelle he was a nut-job. She'd have him cracked in no time. **** I had my head thrown back and my lips parted, the last swipe of mascara almost perfect... there! I stood back and looked at my reflection: definitely not work attire. I was so glad I made the decision to not perk up the whole mess with just a new top. Michelle probably would have flogged me if I had anyway. She'd be dressed-to-kill (as usual). I needed to make an effort. Sometimes, I wondered why I bothered. Michelle would go, shine, get picked-up, bang some anonymous stud in the bathroom or wherever, and I would sip my drink wishing I could go home and curl up with a book. I sighed. That's okay. She was... my vicarious slutty friend. And I loved her. I grabbed my vanilla body spray and squirted a last dab. If I got to dancing a lot, I'd be glad I wore it. It was frigid outside but once we were inside Spinners, with all the bodies packed in there, it'd be a different story. I heard the doorknob jiggle and caught sight of Michelle coming through the doorway looking delectable in her slut suit. She twirled for me so I could get the full effect. “That should be illegal!” I nearly screamed. She had a micro-mini on that was two part: it cupped her ass and was barely legal (skimming the indecent exposure laws by a millimeter). It was hot pink, setting off her platinum hair to perfection. She “helped” the color of said hair, but not by a lot. Michelle was a rare thing up here in the frozen north and I was betting that it was her coloring that got her so much attention, and the boobs... and the outfits. And, and.... I smiled as she circled me like a shark, gauging my potential for Attracting the Opposite Sex. “I don't know... is this the shortest skirt you have?” Her brows closed the distance between her eyes. I self-consciously ran my hand over my short black skirt, it barely covered the lace of my thigh-highs... a gorgeous pair that I had splurged on from Italy. “Yeah, I can't go much shorter without the lace tops showing.” Michelle gave me a blank look. “Seriously, that's part of the allure.” “Ah... no. I say let them guess. It is underwear after all.” “I say show it!” Michelle said. “Mystery,” I replied. She threw her hand up. “Whatever, I give up. At least you did right by the top.” I had almost not worn it, it was a scorching crimson and showed off my raven hair, my eyes stranded like startled jewels in my pale face. It left my arms bare and was tucked inside the skirt. Michelle allowed her glance to linger a moment longer on my outfit, then shook her head as we walked out. I gave a quick pet to Caesar the cat and waltzed out. CHAPTER TWO Spinners was packed as usual and we jockeyed for position, awkwardly elbowing everyone without trying to maim people. It was always this way. I couldn't believe our luck! I spied a couple of bar stools and we raced over there to stake our claim before they were snatched up. We perched our butts on the stools, aimlessly looking around at the bodies packed together, dancing the night away. I noticed they had already opened all the windows, allowing the sub-twenty degree air in. It didn't matter, it felt like a balmy eighty where we sat. The bartender got our drinks. I sipped on a Blue Hawaiian and Michelle had Sex on the Beach (of course). She swung her leg back and forth and I was getting a spot-on flash of bright red panties... and so were a bunch of guys, judging from the expression of the gaggle of hunks sitting across from us. “So what happened with Erik?” “Yeah!” I yelled to be heard over the din. “He did this weird thing with my keys...” and I told her the whole thing. Michelle leaned forward to catch everything because the noise was swallowing my words. She leaned back against the bar, her elbows flung back and her wrists dangling off the edge, looking thoughtful. For Michelle that meant she was quiet for more than one minute. Finally she said, “Yeah, you want to stay away from him. I hear he went out with some girl and date-raped her.” Perfect, I thought. That'd kinda been the vibe I was getting off him. Wasn't sure that confirmation was the greatest thing in this case, being as how I worked with the weirdo. Wonderful. I was momentarily distracted when two of the cute guys across the way sidled over to us. The one on the right was almost as blonde as Michelle but that's where the similarity ended. He was a head taller than her with brown eyes and a face that had seen acne in its youth. I guess he was ruggedly handsome. He spent time in the gym; it was in the set of his shoulders, the way he moved... like he had purpose. Tonight his purpose was Michelle. His eyes never left the foot that swung, traveling up to the apex of what the skirt almost showed. He looked like a dog ready to mount a bitch. It did something for her because her foot stopped swinging and she gave him the come hither look. The night was Going to Plan. “Want to dance, cutie-pie?” she asked, batting her eyelashes. He all but panted while I rolled my eyes in my head. I just couldn't do it. It's not that I'd never had sex. Casual just wasn't a main entree. I dreamed that there was someone for me in my future. Someone that I could share something with. I felt almost like... almost like I was waiting. Michelle argued there was plenty to be shared. She was into sharing. Generous Michelle. I watched her on the dance floor, plastered to Rugged, grinding for all she was worth, he was all over her and she was loving it. I took my eyes off them and looked at the guy in front of me. He was way cuter than Rugged. He had the enigmatic something that made a girl want to get a little closer. So I did. “Do you want to dance?” he asked. I nodded. He held out his hand, which was big I noticed. I tried not to think about how it would feel to have those hands roaming over my body but couldn't quite do it. He took me up against him and I molded against his torso. As those hands came to rest on the small of my back, the heat from them warmed me. He looked into my eyes and they held a promise of a fun night... if that's what I wanted. I didn't grind against him but I could feel that he was happy to be there. He smiled at me, knowing I was aware of his arousal. He clutched me tighter and lowered his face next to mine and whispered, “Your friend's gone.” Now he was kissing my neck. Unease crept its way along my body. Usually Michelle gave me some kind of signal or something. I looked around for her trying not to feel frantic. “Where did they go?” I semi-shouted at him. “Outside!” He inclined his head in the direction of the door. “You want to go find them?” he asked, his fingers already twining in mine. I looked down at our clasped hands and that feeling of unease bloomed in me again. I couldn't shake it. I understood on some level that I was just getting residual anxiety from the strange encounter with Erik and letting that cloud my thinking. I wasn't going to take it out on this guy. “Yeah, let's find them,” I said decisively. I should have listened to that voice inside my head. CHAPTER THREE The wind was up and tore at the light outfit I had chosen for dancing inside. It simply wasn't enough. But the guy, (Matt, he'd told me as we hurried out) had said he thought they'd be in the car. “How much further?” I asked as I shivered in the light coat I'd slung on without a care before we left. I cared now, I was freezing my half-naked ass off. “Not much,” he wrapped an arm around my shoulders as we walked and that helped. Sure enough, another block of parked cars revealed a car that was running. I could see a flash of pink in the car, but barely. What was happening? It was Michelle but there were... others. Other men. My foreboding slammed back over me, washing away all tact. I went to wrench the car door open and Matt stopped me. “They're busy.” “Ah duh, Einstein, I can see that. But I don't know if she was planning on being this busy,” I said, seeing that there were at least two guys in there. Matt put his hands up, as if to say, hey, no problem, just sayin'. Irritating jerk. Sighing, I tore open the door and was entirely unprepared for what I saw before me: Michelle had Rugged behind her shoving his cock right up to her groin, the whole length of him digging in, sparing her nothing, his balls slapping her ass. The other guy, who I vaguely remembered sitting across the way from us, had his hand fisted in all that blonde hair and was pressing her face up and down on the shaft of his dick. When the door opened, Rugged's eyes flew open and his gaze met mine. His body was pumping and working behind Michelle his hand reached over and slapped her ass and she moaned, her head working up and down the shaft of the prick she had in her mouth. I didn't think she had planned on this and I yelled, “Michelle!” She tried to take her head off the cock she was on but he shoved her back down and she gagged. “I'm gonna spray my cum you dumb bitch, keep sucking.” She squirmed to try and get away and Rugged held her hips, pounding into her harder. I backed away with my hand covering my mouth. Michelle wasn't fooling around... she was getting raped. I swung around to get help and Matt wrapped his arms around me. One of his big hands that I'd admired so much earlier covered my mouth so I couldn't scream. Adrenaline slammed into me like a sheet of cold water. Dragging me into the front seat of the car he threw me across and I bounced once, almost landing against the opposite door. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew what was going to happen as Rugged said hoarsely, “God... I'm gonna cum in her snatch right now, oh God!” The whole car rocked as he plunged his length into Michelle and the other guy torqued her head down on him and said, “Swallow it... that's it, swallow it. Ahhh... that's right,” he groaned, throwing his head back, his lips slightly parted. I started to fully panic then, scrambling across the seat, my skirt hiking around my hips as I struggled to reach the door. Matt landed on top of me and all the air in my lungs went out in a rush. I couldn't breathe and was in a state of sheer panic, Matt was not the guy I had taken him for. Neither were his friends. I could hear Michelle sobbing softly and the rustle of her clothes as she tried to adjust everything. Two heads and upper chests appeared over the top of the back seat as Matt's engorged arousal pressed along my inner thigh, trying to gain entrance, his pants long gone. “You gotta a live one there,” Guy X said. “Not as 'live' as the bitch we just did,” Rugged replied, laughing. The sweet air of the car's interior entered in a rush, filling my lungs to capacity and I screamed for all I was worth, tearing something loose in the process. Matt's hand clamped over my mouth and I bit him, trying to meet my teeth together. He snatched his hand away and bellowed. I knew what was coming as I was pinned under him, his other hand came down with depressing speed and accuracy, slamming into my cheekbone, my head rocketing back against the door. My head swam and his fingers dug at my panties while the other men watched.... Just when I thought there wasn't a hope in the world, the driver's side door was torn open, the hinges shrieking, then releasing in the process. The door was flung behind the figure that filled the opening. I was seeing him upside down but the guys in the back seat summed it up, “What the fuck? Who the fuck are you?” He was my savior... whoever he was. Matt was backing off me in a hurry, leaving me to the stranger's mercy. With my head spinning all I saw was a strong jaw, black jeans, boots and a bad-ass leather zip-up. As he leaned down, the whiteness of his teeth gleamed in the interior dome light of the car, his nearly bald head had an inky wash of short black hair covering it, the shirt breaking open at the neck to reveal a tattoo that crawled up his neck. He wasn't big on conversation, his hand snaking out in a lethal punch that terminated on Matt's nose. There was a sickening crunch and he backed up, howling. His bleeding hand with my teethmarks held what I was sure was a broken nose as he fell right outside the car on his ass. The stranger looked down at me then and his eyes were a startling blue, not icy pale like mine. They were nearly white in a face that was pale, his lush mouth a deep scarlet slash. He looked me over carefully, but only a second or two as he was going to have to deal with Rugged and Guy X. Those two had gotten out of the car and I was too weak to even turn over and see things right side up. If he'd meant me harm, it would have happened. At least that's what I told myself. Rugged and Guy X faced him. “You could have had a piece of this action, if you'd asked nice.” The stranger looked briefly at Michelle who was trying to stop crying, the sobs turning to hitching hiccups. Then he spared a glance in my direction, taking in my clothes in disarray, my face starting to swell from the blow I'd received. “They do not look as though it was the attention they wished for,” the stranger responded. I noticed that he was enormously big compared to the two men who had abused Michelle. And that was saying something because Matt had me by inches and I was five-eight. Rugged said, “You talk funny.” “As do you,” Stranger said. Guy X circled around him, taking his measure as a male. “I think you need an ass-kicking. You've beat the shit out of our car in the middle of fuckin' winter in this cold-ass place, ruined another piece of easy tail for me and my buds here. You gotta get what's comin' to ya.” Stranger looked at them as they rushed him at the same time. From my angle I saw everything upside down and in slow motion. Rugged came at him like a charging bear and Stranger swung his arm forward in a stiffened knife jab move and with the flat of the palm he landed it square in Rugged's nose. He stared blankly for a moment then fell like a box of rocks, his nose shattered. Guy X was a slow learner and grabbed him from behind and latched onto his wind pipe. Stranger grabbed the forearm which held him, crushing it before my eyes just using the one hand, while the other spun Guy X around to stare at him. He was howling, taking great lungfuls of air to bellow louder. “Stop that noise,” Stranger said. And he did. The stranger stared into the eyes of Guy X. “Tilt your head.” Guy X looked like he was in a fog, as if he was not in command of his mind. He cocked his head to the extreme left. The long, clean line of his neck was exposed under the street lamp, the artificial light casting a ghostly yellow on the flesh of his throat. The stranger reared back like a snake and hissing, struck Guy X's neck. His teeth as he arced above Guy X's neck was something I would never forget: They were fangs. I was riveted. My presumed savior was not a man... he was something else. I had to get out of here. I tried to sit up and my head swam. I was woozy from the blow. The stranger had gathered Guy X in his arms and was taking great gulps from him but his eyes were pinned on me. Time to go. I looked over the back seat and met Michelle's horrified eyes. Her mascara had made its way all over her face and I said, “Let's get out of here. Right now.” I slid out of the car, one of my high heels falling off and was met by another stranger. This one had blonde hair and the same icy-blue eyes as the other. They were busy tonight. This one was all over Matt. He sucked at his neck while Matt made disconcerting mewling sounds underneath him. He lifted his mouth off Matt long enough to hiss at Michelle, which got us moving. We backed away, both my shoes left on the sidewalk. They watched us but did not follow, taking the last of the men's blood. Their lives ebbed as we watched. “What are they?” Michelle whispered. “Ah... I think we've just been saved by those blood-killers.” “They... they raped the women...” We looked at each other, dawning comprehension mirrored in our expressions. We ran. We ran until my lungs burned, the images of them sucking those guys lives away etched permanently in my brain. We were within sight of my car when we saw them leaning against it, one dark, the other light. “Holy shit,” Michelle stammered. Yeah, that. They came off the car at the same moment like perfectly choreographed twins. But it was the dark one that made my heart speed in my chest. They came to stand before us. “We need to scrub them both. They have seen entirely too much,” the blonde one said, his stare going from Michelle to me. The dark one laid his icy gaze on me and I shivered. From what I didn't know but his gaze penetrated my bone and marrow. “Holy shit,” Michelle said again. I seconded that. Still I said nothing while they looked at us for a long moment. “No. The blonde one forgets. This one, no.” “Why, Cole?” the blonde stranger asked. “She is fair of face and figure, but there are many...” “You cannot smell her?” Cole asked. The blonde's head whipped around and his penetrating gaze was suddenly all for me; I backed away. Finally, he shook his head. “All I smell is their fear. They smell like prey.” “Underneath that, Nathan.” One moment he was ten feet away and the next he had his arms around me and I screamed. Michelle started to run but faster than my eyes could track, the one named Cole had her in his arms, his hand covering her mouth and the fingers of those long hands feathered her temple. And I'd thought Matt's hand had been big... my God, his were palming her entire face. Voices drifted down, the blonde's face was buried in my neck and I began to hyperventilate. Images flooded my mind of my would-be rapists not finishing what they started, distracted with death-by-blood loss. “Be still,” he said, his fangs bursting out of his mouth. I thrashed around and he turned to Cole. “She will not follow my command.” “Will it so,” Cole said. He buried his nose in my neck, breathing my scent in, his fangs grazing the skin of my neck. Lifting his head he said, “Breeder.” “Yes.” “We must take her. There are so few left. This one is... she is rare.” A drunken group stepped out into our little mess and Michelle began hollering, “Help, help!” A couple of the guys broke away from the pack and made their way over to us, Cole stood away from Michelle and the blonde released me slowly, like he didn't want to stop touching me. As they approached the males, they looked into their eyes and each stranger said, “Leave this place.” One of the men grabbed his temples with his hands, shaking his head like he couldn't release the clutches of something. “That one has a strong mind,” Nathan said. “Some of the cattle do,” Cole said. Cattle. I started to back away, subtly getting Michelle's attention. We were almost to the car when Cole's head whipped around. “You... will not leave.” Michelle began hollering again but the men walked away. The one who shook his head cast a final glance behind him. As we watched he massaged his temple, continuing to walk away. They retraced their steps toward us and my heart sank. We could not outrun something we couldn't see move, something that crushed a man's face with one swipe, disintegrated an arm with a grip strong enough to pulverize bone. As they drew nearer, their fangs stood out of their mouths, barbed points ready to pierce our flesh. Michelle latched on to my hand and I prepared myself for the worst. “You cannot thirst.” “No, but the blonde one's fear is an aphrodisiac,” Nathan said. “Yes, but think on this Nathan: has she not already been degraded enough by the human scum we dispatched?” Cole said. “Yes,” Nathan ground out. “You speak true.” “Then scrub her and we take the female breeder.” Nathan approached Michelle and she started to wail, her screams broken only by her next breath. The blonde was suddenly in front of her. Squeezing her throat lightly, he cut off her screaming and the sudden silence filled the parking area. The snow was falling softly around us, some of the flakes catching in my eyelashes. Nathan stared deeply into Michelle's eyes. Finally he moved away and she stood there, blank faced, in a zombie-like stupor. “What did you do to her?” I whispered. “Something we cannot do for you,” Cole remarked. I backed away and they tracked me. “I am not going with you,” I said, proud that my voice only shook a little. “We understand your fear, but you will come with us. How do you humans put it? It is non-negotiable.” “You don't understand anything! You two... whatever-you-are, sucked our attacker's blood. They died and now you're calling me some kind of 'breeder'. No offense, but it's not looking too good on my end.” My eyes bounced from one to the other of them. I couldn't follow their movements, just when I thought I had one in my sights they moved so fast they were both suddenly one foot away from me, each holding an arm. I opened my mouth to scream and Cole put his mouth on mine, stifling any sound I could manage. His kiss blossomed and spread to the center of me, making my panties instantly moisten. I'd never had a reaction like this in my life. Of course, I'd always made out with human men. My fear was in my throat but my biology was never touched by it. I couldn't move my arms but as my mouth moved against his, he released my arm and I wound it around his neck, pressing his lips harder against mine and he groaned and pulled me against him. My mind played tug-of-war, my intellect was screaming that he was some creature of the night. He'd killed two men before my eyes but my center bloomed for him; heat stretching and spreading from between my legs. My nipples hardened and he reached behind me, placing his hands under my thighs. Never breaking from the kiss, he lifted me up and I wound my legs around his waist. “She is so eager,” Nathan said, releasing my other arm. He circled us, grabbing a piece of my hair and flicking it behind my shoulder. That broke through the heat of the moment and my intellect slammed back into place. I broke away and shoved at his chest with my hands. He let me slide down his body and when my feet hit the pavement, the cold moved up my legs, freezing that searing heat before it progressed. I gave Nathan a dirty look, noticing Michelle still stood there in the same position, gooseflesh covering her arms, her teeth chattering. “I don't know what you are, or why this is happening but I just want you to go... now. I will get my friend and I home without any help from you.” I folded my arms across my chest. “Your body speaks for what you want. It speaks for what you are.” “Oh?” I arched my eyebrow. “What is it that I am?” “It is what is in your blood, you are of Druid blood. They are the only humans that may breed with us.” Druid? What the hell was that? Okay, next question: “What are you?” They looked at each other. “We are Vampire, witch,” Cole said as if that should have been obvious. Witch? Had the conversation devolved to name-calling at two a.m.? “Do you know of your people?” I couldn't believe I was standing out here in twenty degree weather talking to a couple of guys claiming to be vampires. I felt incredibly stupid to have kissed the one... Cole. “Ah, no. I'm adopted. Okay, while all this is interesting, it's time to go.” I turned to Michelle, who had a spot of drool coming out of her mouth. God, what did they do to her? I walked over to her, grabbing a limp arm and started dragging her to my car. Suddenly, they stood in front of me. “Would you stop doing that!” I said, fear choking me. A smile spread over Cole's face. “Doing what?” His fangs were smaller now that he wasn't trying to French me. Sirens began in the distance and we all looked in their direction. “The human police,” Nathan said. “Yes.” “Another time, breeder,” Cole said. He licked his finger and touched it on my forehead. “I mark you for another time, very soon.” They disappeared into thin air and I was left with Michelle, the approaching cops, and a pulsing core that wept for the vampire that was now gone.

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